5 AM, January 1st, *New Year’s Day*, 2015.
I’m in my car waiting to enter one of LA’s most remote gated communities, a sprawling neighborhood carved straight into what is now a large protected mountain range outside the city.
My friend Josh sits next to me, messing around with his new camera. In front of us, contractors sit patiently in pickup trucks, ready to tidy up the yards of a few B list celebrities and well off residents sleeping off hangovers inside. I inch the car forward and pull out my wallet.
At the guard booth, an old man opens a window and stares at my friend and I. He looks confused as he asks for my ID. I give it to him and he motions his hand toward the tripod in the backseat.
“You guys one of those crazy Youtubers or something?” he asks.
I feign a smile. “Nope! Just a school project. Boring, honestly. I’d much rather be sleeping.”
The guard takes my ID, peering at the temporary guest list to match my name with the resident I had called to let me in the night before. “You don’t know the half of it,” he says, letting out a long sigh.
We drive forward and roll up our windows. Punk rock blasts as we celebrate the conquest of the first of many obstacles that lay ahead. It’s still pitch black as we arrive at our destination — a fire road located at the periphery of the community, surrounded by two McMansions and a fleet of black SUVs parked along the side of the street.
We open my trunk to examine our equipment: gas masks, latex gloves, industrial flashlights, neon glow sticks, and two backpacks filled with standard hiking gear. My mind races with excitement, even as I think that if we were seen here (perhaps by an overly ambitious jogger eager to start his new years' resolution) that we’d be mistaken for burglars.
The Santa Susana Field Laboratory was a sprawling industrial research complex located on over 2,000 acres of rocky hillside in Simi Valley, California. Widely recognized as being one of America’s most vital facilities during the space race, scientists from NASA, Boeing, and Rocketdyne contributed significantly in developing the following projects for the US government.
- Engines for the Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM).
- The Engine for Explorer 1, America’s first satellite.
- The F-1 engine that powered the Apollo booster.
- The world’s first sodium nuclear reactor — which experienced a meltdown dubbed one of the worst radioactive disasters in US history.
Worst in US history?
Most Americans know about Three Mile Island, the 1979 meltdown which brought anti-nuclear politics into the mainstream and resulted in worldwide outrage. But how many have heard of the 1959 Rocketdyne Meltdown?
The accident released a cloud of radiation estimated to be hundreds of times greater than three mile, leading many local scientists (including one who testified before Congress) to argue its direct link to neighborhood cancer rates being 60% higher than the national average.
Well, I certainly should have — I spent my entire childhood within 15 miles of the place.
I have eerie memories of the deafening engine tests that took place at SSFL before it shut down in 2006. But I had almost no knowledge of where the sounds came from, other than my dad’s cheeky suggestions that aliens were visiting. At some point after graduating high school, I stumbled on an article about SSFL, and my curiosity soared.
When the launches were more frequent during the height of the cold war, they captured the fascination of many residents in Valley. Kevin Roderick, a journalist who grew up in the area, wrote that locals used to sing a tune whenever the night sky lit up with orange hue of jet fuel:
When there’s thunder
On the mountains
Every Evening just at nine,
And your walls begin to tremble
It’s not God.
Residents had tremendous pride for the facility. To them, it represented a greater purpose that most Americans only connected with by way of television reports and radio broadcasts. Locals businesses fed Rocketdyne workers, washed their clothes, repaired their cars, and built their homes. They were helping their country with its most important goals: defeating the Soviets and sending men to the moon.
The reactor that leaked in 1959 was located in an area of SSFL dubbed “Sector IV”, which was classified as experimental and given lax environmental restrictions. This allowed engineers to speedily build the reactor, but with a deadly tradeoff: it had no containment structures. The reactor and its highly radioactive components were housed without the large concrete domes that surround modern power reactors.
When the meltdown occurred, a decision was made by higher-ups to downplay the incident. Engineers were told to run the reactor as normal over the next few days. As it became more and more obvious that radiation was spreading throughout the surrounds hills and communities, the plug was pulled. A few weeks later, Atomics International released a memo alerting residents of a “slight mishap” with their reactor, and that no dangerous radiation was released.
Employees at SSFL were directed not to tell anyone about the incident, and it was not publicly disclosed for 20 years, until 1979. A series of academic and journalistic reports between 1989–2010 helped to reveal the true scale of the disaster. Testifying before Congress in 2008, Daniel Hirsch, President of an NGO dedicated to nuclear safety, referred to the meltdown as “one of the worst accidents in nuclear history.”
Subsequent reports revealed other toxic decisions Boeing made at SSFL. Instead of safely shipping hazardous materials to a licensed facility, workers shot barrels of the toxic chemicals with rifles and dumped the waste into nearby streams. This has led to multiple ongoing studies on the groundwater quality of the area, including an expensive multi-billion dollar legal battle between Boeing and local governments over a cleanup agreement.
I’m an urban explorer, so I love checking out abandoned places. But the idea of seeing SSFL scared the hell out of me. As I read more about this irradiated gem, I realized it would be my first truly risky adventure.
Aside from the high levels of radiation in the soil and crumbling infrastructure, the site has pretty intense security. From my online conversations with the few people who managed to sneak in, the process is grueling: requiring a 6-mile hike in and out which almost necessitates overnight camping at the site. But camping seemed too brutal. With 24/7 security, roaming coyotes, and radiation, I was hell bent on getting in without having to stay over night. Luckily, I found a much easier access point to the site which cut my travel time significantly (The process of which I be wise not to reveal here.)
The first structures were just a mile or so ahead. The grounds between us and the facility were littered with black tarps the size of football fields. A decayed, twisting road led up the path, splicing through two more layers of fencing.
We took position on a patch of sandstone rock. I devoured some cliff bars and watched the sunrise. When we had enough light, my friend scanned ahead for trucks. We were told they’d patrol randomly but wanted to see there was a pattern in their movements. If we could decode them, our chances of making it out seemed much more reassuring.
After about thirty minutes, I hadn’t spotted a single truck pass any of the roads within eyesight. I looked at Josh. We shrugged and marched forward.
The first structure we encountered behind the razor wire seemed like a type of mechanic’s storage room, rusted away from decades of abandonment. We donned our gas masks to give us a little peace of mind from all asbestos and crept in.
Ancient computers and hardware lined the walls, with nobs reading “FIRE ENGINES” and “INITIATE LAUNCH SEQUENCE”. Reading the controls, our anxiety was just beginning to disappear until we heard what was undoubtedly a pickup truck lugging our road. My stomach dropped. I pulled Josh out the back door and we crouched behind some concrete blocks.
Somehow, we didn’t hear nor see any more signs of the truck. Collective panic, it seemed, took control of our senses. In a grueling few minutes, we mustered the courage to continue on.
We approached a colossal structure that resembled a water tower. Getting closer, we saw “DANGER: HYDROGEN GAS” labeled on the side of a bright blue storage tank that hovered over us with over a hundred feet of hollowed steel.
Josh and I looked at each other and read each other’s minds: we were going to climb this son-of-a-bitch.
I felt pretty secure during the initial 30 feet of climbing as the bottom segment of the ladder was protected by a safety ring. But my palms really began to sweat when I reached the spiraling staircase that wrapped around the tank.
Inching my way forward, I found my way to the top and looked down the vent that revealed the inside of the tank. Of course, all of the gas was drained a long time ago, but I couldn’t help but imagine choking on the fumes of some unknown chemicals.
Once we made our way down, we walked up to the first test stand — the real attraction we came for. Much of the structure was stripped away to its frame, but it was still an awesome sight to behold. We heard rumors that contractors were just about to demolish the tower, so we felt incredibly lucky to photograph it while it was still there. From here, we could see the other test stands, as well as the infamous Sector IV where the sodium reactor melted down. It was a good mile hike ahead, and with the heightened radiation, we decided to stay around the test stand.
After climbing the structure for a few minutes, I stopped and screamed at Josh. I had tripped some sort of alarm, causing a flashing red light and beeping noise to send him and I sprinting toward the exit. We covered half a mile until we heard security patrol come whirling down our road behind a curve. We scrambled up a hill and lied flat in some bushes.
The truck flew past us, oblivious to our position. We waited until it cleared the crest of the road and we took off. In the agonizing mile and a half run back, we managed to find our way back to my car without being seen. Throwing off our masks and airing out our sweaty clothes, we never felt more stupid and more alive. A young woman backed out of her driveway across from us. I gave her a wave. She eyed our gas masks, shrugged her shoulders, and flashed us a smile.
P.S. Urban Exploration. Never steal/vandalize/misplace anything you find. Keep sites as you found them and be respectful.