CRESCENT - Karen Silkwood died in a mystery-shrouded car crash 25 years ago, a tragic end to events that made her a heroine to anti-nuclear activists and dumbfounded Crescent residents.
"We're country folks and didn't realize all the hullabaloo was going on," recalls Phil Yenzer, 67, about the plutonium contamination controversy at the nearby Cimarron Facility where Silkwood was a lab technician.
The anniversary of Silkwood's death went largely unnoticed in Crescent, where many people have bad memories of the Silkwood case and "all the myths that grew up around it," Police Chief Jack Harris said.
"I think her death has been milked for about everything people can get out of it," Harris said last week as he relaxed in his chair at the tiny Crescent Police Station.
Yenzer, who operates a downtown antiques store, remembers the slightly built Silkwood shopping in his grocery store and calls her an unlikely hero.
For many merchants and residents in the town of 1,600, the plutonium contamination threat at the now-closed Kerr-McGee plutonium processing plant was given little thought at the time.
"We were never scared," Yenzer said. "We were just tickled to death that the plant was there and some people had jobs."
Silkwood, a 28-year-old mother turned environment activist, was killed when her car careened into a culvert on a highway south of town Nov. 13, 1974.
She was on her way to see a New York Times reporter, purportedly carrying documents showing lax security at the plant. No documents were recovered.
Her death was memorialized in a movie starring Meryl Streep, and it has been the subject of several books and magazine articles.
Through the years, reporters and investigators have resurrected Silkwood's memory in this farming and ranching community, but the case isn't the subject of day-to-day conversation.
Service station employee Travis Holliday, 23, grew up in Crescent but knew nothing of Karen Silkwood until he was a teen-ager and happened to catch the 1983 movie, "Silkwood," on television.
Now, he occasionally hears talk, such as speculation that "somebody became upset with her and ran her off the road. But I don't know anything. It's just talk."
Silkwood had become contaminated by plutonium before the accident. Her Edmond apartment also was found to be contaminated.
The woman's union and environmental activism pitted her against Oklahoma-based Kerr-McGee, whose subsidiary ran the plutonium processing plant.
Harris worked in Guthrie at the time of the accident, but the officer who made the initial investigation told him "it was pretty evident that she had gone to sleep."
Official police reports declared it a single-car accident, and a medical examiner's autopsy showed a sedative in her body.
Her supporters, attorneys and various private investigators have contended she was bumped off the road by another vehicle, becoming a murder or manslaughter victim.
"I think the case has been used for different people's agendas," Harris said.
While saying he did not know whether there were security problems at Cimarron, Harris said a friend who worked there resented Silkwood's activities because "it was the beginning of the end of the plant."
Silkwood's father, Bill Silkwood, filed a $71 million lawsuit against Kerr-McGee on behalf of his daughter's three small children. A jury found Kerr-McGee had a responsibility in the woman's contamination and awarded a $10.5 million judgment that was eventually litigated down to $1.38 million.
Lead attorney Gerry Spence said the case was important in the quest for safety in a nuclear age.
Kerr-McGee officials have repeatedly pointed out that the settlement with the Silkwood estate was not connected to her accident and death.
Last week, spokeswoman Debbie Schramm said Kerr-McGee had nothing further to say about the case.
Still, the final chapter of the Silkwood saga has yet to be written since a cleanup of the Cimarron Facility continues a quarter century after it was closed.
Security and cleanup workers still drive every day to the facility, where a weather-faded blue sign adorns a tall chain-link fence, warning that "all vehicles and persons are subject to search upon entering or leaving this facility."
The cleanup supervised by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is nearing an end, Schramm said.Archive ID: 785519