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Silkwood case draws attention Anniversary of death unnoticed in Crescent

Ron Jenkins Published: November 22, 1999
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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.

Mysterious death

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."

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