After 25 Years, Silkwood Legacy Endures


Karen Silkwood died in a mystery-shrouded car crash 25 years ago last month, a tragic end to events that transformed her into a heroine to anti-nuclear activists and dumbfounded residents of this small town.

“We’re country folks and didn’t realize all the hullabaloo was going on,” recalls 67-year-old Phil Yenzer of the plutonium contamination controversy at the nearby Cimarron Facility, where Silkwood was a lab technician.

Although the recent anniversary of Silkwood’s death went largely unnoticed in Crescent, many people retain vivid memories of the Silkwood case and “all the myths that grew up around it,” said Police Chief Jack Harris.

“I think her death has been milked for about everything people can get out of it,” Harris said at the tiny Crescent Police Station.


Yenzer, who now operates a downtown antiques store, remembers the slightly built Silkwood shopping in his grocery store.

Like Yenzer, many merchants and townspeople in the town of 1,600 gave little thought at the time to the contamination threat at the now-closed Kerr-McGee Corp. plutonium-processing plant.

“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 and environmental activist, somehow became contaminated with plutonium. Her apartment was contaminated as well.


She was killed when her car careened into a culvert on a highway south of town on 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 depicted in a movie starring Meryl Streep and has been the subject of several books.

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 teenager 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.”

Harris worked in Guthrie at the time of the car 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.

But her supporters, attorneys and various private investigators have contended she was bumped off the road by another vehicle.


“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 union and environmental activities because “it was the beginning of the end of the plant.”

Bill Silkwood, Karen’s father, filed a $71-million lawsuit against Kerr-McGee on behalf of her 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 reduced to $1.38 million.

Lead attorney Gerald Spence said the case was important in the quest for safety in a nuclear age.

Officials of Kerr-McGee have repeatedly pointed out that the settlement with the Silkwood estate was not connected to her accident and death.

Last month, spokeswoman Debbie Schramm said Kerr-McGee had nothing further to say about the case.

The Cimarron site is still being decontaminated and cleaned up under supervision of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.