Nuclear tests bred Pine Belt paranoia - WDAM-TV 7-News, Weather, Sports-Hattiesburg, MS

Nuclear tests bred Pine Belt paranoia

© WDAM producer Will Nunnery with Baxterville resident Ralph Hawthorn. © WDAM producer Will Nunnery with Baxterville resident Ralph Hawthorn.

Since the United States government detonated the first explosion on Lamar County's Salmon Nuclear Test Site in 1964, evidence that nuclear radiation leaked into the water well, was swept into the air, seeped out of the ground, mutated animals, or made even one person ill has never been found. However it still wrought havoc on the community.

"The detonation occurred and the people left," said University of Southern Mississippi nursing professor Lois Sumrall. "Well then the residents were left to think "Well what happened? What happened to us?"

Conspiracy theories about what some suspect was a shady government experiment still circulate.

"They blew that radiation into the air when it was leaking out the valve, my Pa in-law was there," Ralph Hawthorn who was a resident of nearby Baxterville at the time of the blasts.

Ola Saul's family was evacuated for the blasts.

"As time passed by, the ground wasn't the way it was supposed to be," says Saul. "We'd have holes where there wasn't supposed to be any holes."

"They found numerous frogs that had like rib cages on one side and not on the other side," says Hawthorn.

Sumrall has conducted public health assessments with her students in Baxterville - the town closest to ground zero of the explosions - for a decade. She says the myths and the urban legends developed in the sixties still persist today.

But even if they are myths, they resonate in the town, where cancer and heart disease rates are on par with Mississippi's but still higher than the national average.

"If you're healthy and then something takes place and then you start getting sick, something went wrong," says longtime Baxterville resident Willie Hibley.

"The human brain thinks that way," says Sumrall. "If you think there's this potential risk, and then you get a symptom, you automatically tie it to that."

"There's a lot of people who really believe that what they were going through had a lot to do with the Tatum Salt Dome," says Saul.

"Most people, they didn't die with heart attacks, they died with cancer," Hawthorn said.

But radiation is not the cause, it is most often due to lifestyle says Sumrall. Baxterville, like much of Mississippi, is rural - no gyms or grocery stores, and statistics reveal that few visit the doctor regularly.

"I think that, as studies have been done," says Sumrall, "There's been a transition from the older people who lived through it wanting to perpetuate that myth because it's the drama - it's their story telling."

"The government ain't going to tell you the truth, no way, until our generation is gone," says Hawthorn. "When we all dead and gone one day that'll be admitted, that they done that."

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