Strange Death Scenes: Karen Silkwood

Strange Deaths: Karen Silkwood

On the evening of the 13th of November 1974, the lifeless body of Karen Gay Silkwood was found inside her Honda Civic in what seemed like a lone-car crash on State Highway 74. Was it really a crash, or was there more to the story? That’s where the mystery lies to date, more than 40 years later.

So, what happened to her that makes her case so strange? Was there more to the story than what was officially ruled as an accident?

A young Karen Silkwood

A young Karen Silkwood (Courtesy of the Texas Historical Society)


Karen’s early life

Karen Gay Silkwood was born on the 19th of February, 1946, in Longview, Texas. She was the middle child of Merle and William Silkwood, with two sisters named Linda and Rosemary. When Karen was four years old, the family moved to Nederland, Texas.

Karen attended Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, where she met William Meadows. The two married in 1965 and had three children together.

However, the marriage was not a happy one. Meadows was an over-spender, and the couple eventually filed for bankruptcy. Additionally, Meadows had an extramarital affair that Karen refused to tolerate. In 1972, she left Meadows and moved to Oklahoma City.

In Oklahoma City, Karen initially worked as a hospital clerk until she landed a job with the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication plant. Working at the Fabrication plant is where things took a huge turn for Karen. It was there that Silkwood became involved in union activity and began to raise concerns about the plant’s safety conditions.


Joining the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union

After landing a job at Ker-McGee Cimarron, Karen became increasingly concerned about the safety of the workers at her workplace. She felt that the company was not doing enough to protect its workers, and she wanted to make a difference.

In 1972, Karen joined the local Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Company in Crescent, Oklahoma. She took a leading role in a worker’s walkout at the company and was nominated to the union’s negotiating committee afterward. Karen was the first lady to hold that spot at the Firm.

The Kerr-McGee Cimmaron Facility Karen Worked At

The Kerr-McGee Cimmaron Facility Karen Worked At

At the plant, Karen was consigned to examine wellbeing and safety concerns of employees. While on the job, she learned what she understood to be several violations of health code of practice regulations, including exposing workers to contamination, defective respiratory gear, and unfitting storage of samples. She was also concerned about the lack of showering facilities, increasing the risk of worker’s contamination.

Karen brought her findings to the union and met with management to try and resolve the issues. However, she was met with resistance and intimidation. Undeterred, she continued to speak out and fight for better working conditions – until her untimely death in 1974.


How did Karen Silkwood Die?

Silkwood started a report detailing the plant’s safety issues, including worker contamination, poor breathing apparatus, and improper sample storage. She also considered a lack of shower facilities at the firm a contamination risk.

To the Atomic Energy Commission in 1974, Silkwood reported leaks, damaged fuel rods, and even missing plutonium. She said Kerr-McGee fabricated inspection reports. After testifying, Karen officially became a troublemaker at the firm. On the 7th of November, while conducting her regular self-tests, she discovered she had plutonium poisoning in her lungs. Upon this discovery, she believed that she was being targeted for her actions as a whistleblower. While her flat had high radiation levels, her vehicle and work locker had none.

On the 14th of November in the afternoon, Silkwood was traveling to Oklahoma City to meet with a New York Times reporter and the union’s health and safety specialist. Her automobile was located later that evening near Crescent, having swerved off the road and into a concrete culvert wall. Police were quick to rule the crash as an accident, but Silkwood’s boyfriend and family carefully found clues suggesting otherwise, including a steering wheel bent in such a way inconsistent with the crash.

Silkwood's Steering Wheel, bent forward, inconsistent with the crash's direction/force

The yellow arrow marks the steering wheel, bent forward inconsistent to the damage with the rest of the crash.

Before the accident, Karen was from a Union Meeting where she had a bunch of documents with her. The documents included all her findings of what was going on at Kerr-McGee. However, these documents were not recovered at the scene.

She was declared dead at the accident scene in what seemed like a legitimate accident. The trooper on the spot discovered one or two pills of the sedative methaqualone (Quaalude) and cannabis in the automobile. According to the police report, she fell asleep behind the wheel.


The aftermath

Karen Silkwood’s accident immediately became a public outcry. Many believed that there was foul play in her death. A government probe into the security and safety of the facility was launched due to public outcry. According to National Public Radio, the probe revealed that 20 to 30 KGs of Plutonium were missing at the facility.

Kerr-McGee was decommissioned in 1994, and Silkwood’s family was compensated a whopping $1.38 million in a lawsuit against the firm. However, no further investigations were conducted on the foul play claim in her death.

Her case was officially closed as a road accident, a mystery that remains to date, despite the fact many details have remained unclear. It is still a harrowing discussion today, undeniably one that has left a legacy on mid west America as one of America’s strangest deaths. Karen’s life was also the focus of the popular film Silkwood, a 1983 film starring Meryl Streep.

Interested in reading other strange deaths? Please enjoy the story of the Collyer Brothers as well!