NEDERLAND, Texas - Twenty years have passed since plutonium plant whistle-blower Karen Silkwood died in a car crash on an Oklahoma highway, but her father still cannot put her mysterious death behind him.
And even if Bill Silkwood wanted to let go of the past, it seems events won't let him.
Silkwood learned recently that Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico had several bone fragments left behind from post-mortem testing done on his 28-year-old daughter.
The lab wanted to know what the family wished to do with the remains. Silkwood is furious the lab has them.
"I don't want them to have it," says Silkwood, his voice filled with anger. "I want it all. ... It's the remains of what they did to her. " "They had no business taking her body in the first place. " The latest disclosure has renewed the pain and frustration Silkwood and his wife, Merle, have endured since the 1974 accident killed their oldest daughter. The couple lives in Nederland, a southeast Texas town packed with oil and chemical plants.
"It had gotten better until this happened," said Merle Silkwood, choking back tears.
Karen Silkwood, union activist and a lab-analyst for Kerr-McGee Corp. at its plutonium rod processing plant near Crescent, OK, died Nov. 13, 1974 while driving to meet a reporter for The New York Times.
Silkwood contended she had been contaminated by plutonium at the plant, and she had promised to bring evidence to prove the facility was unsafe. However, no documents were found in the wrecked car.
Her family and union officials claimed she was forced off the road, but Oklahoma Highway Patrol officials concluded she fell asleep at the wheel after taking sedatives. The U.S. Justice Department later said there was insufficient evidence to prove the allegations.
Her story was made famous in the movie "Silkwood," starring Meryl Streep and Cher.
Silkwood still is convinced someone killed his daughter, and he has had a standing $10,000 reward out for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case.
"I thought maybe somebody who had been involved would come forward," the 69-year Silkwood said. No one has yet, but Silkwood says the offer stands.
As for the Los Alamos lab, Silkwood is seeking legal advice before he crafts a response about the remaining bones. He also claims the lab has 113 vials containing tissue samples from his daughter that he also wants.
After an autopsy was performed in Oklahoma, some of Karen Silkwood's organs, including her brain, were removed and taken to the Los Alamos lab for additional testing. There, the organs were reduced to ash, dissolved in acid and studied for plutonium content.
Lab officials insist they did so with the family's permission, but Silkwood disagrees.
"They're liars. We only gave them permission to do an autopsy (in Oklahoma). That had nothing to do with stripping her body organs out" and taking them to Los Alamos, he says.
Silkwood says the family didn't find out that her organs had been removed and taken to Los Alamos until 1979 during the trial of a lawsuit filed against Kerr-McGee. (The company later agreed to pay Karen Silkwood's estate $1.38 million in the lawsuit.) And they didn't know about the existing bones until this year.
"I feel now like I felt back during the trial, and that's pretty dad-gum rough," said Silkwood, a native Texan known for his distinctive cowboy boots and western hat.
Over the years, Silkwood has spent his own time and money in his search for answers. He says he's lost a lot of his trust in people along the way. But he can't give up.
"I'm going to continue as long as there's a chance. There's always a chance," he said.
Silkwood continues to talk about his daughter as he walks outside the home where he and his wife raised their three daughters. He glances across the street at the football field where Karen once marched in the high school band.
She was just a regular girl, he says. She played the flute, made good grades, married, had three children and got a job at a nuclear plant.
He knew she was concerned about safety at the plant. She had called just a few days before her death to say she was quitting her job.
She was coming home to Texas. BIOG: NAME:Archive ID: 571662