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The first 'ground zero'
A visit to the Trinity test site, where the deer and the antelope play
By Andy Walton
NEAR SOCORRO, New Mexico -- The Trinity test site is fenced off from the surrounding terrain, secured with a padlock. This would not seem odd except that it is in the middle of the White Sands Missile Range, itself a secured site.
It was here -- 33 degrees, 40 minutes, 31 seconds north latitude, 106 degrees, 28 minutes, 29 seconds west longitude -- where the world changed on July 16, 1945, at 5:29 a.m. Mountain War Time.
In this place, at that time, the world's first nuclear device exploded and the nuclear age was born. A simple stone obelisk, erected some 20 years after the event, marks that birthplace.
Officials chose this site because it was already under government control, part of the Alamagordo Bombing and Gunnery Range. It is in a basin dubbed the Jornado del Muerto -- journey of the dead -- by Spanish explorers. And, though remote, it was close to Los Alamos.
In the first light of dawn, the obelisk casts a long shadow across the scrub. Without the stone marker, the site would blend into the surrounding desert, the crater -- more of an indention, actually -- having long ago been bulldozed into oblivion. Off to one side a tin structure with Plexiglas windows in the roof shelters a small portion of the crater, preserved for posterity.
Nearby there is a small knot of steel and concrete that was once one of the four supports for a 100-foot tower. Most of the tower was vaporized when the gadget atop it was detonated. Gadget, not bomb -- in the Los Alamos days, scientists feared being overheard by workmen. The term stuck.
After the test, the indention at ground zero was covered with trinitite, a green, glass-like mineral created by the extreme heat of the blast. Most of the trinitite was carted away after the test, but small fragments can still be found.
The chain-link and barbed-wire fence that surrounds the site is decorated with weathered radiation warning signs. One large sign warning that "The use of eating, drinking, chewing and smoking materials and the application of cosmetics is prohibited within this fenced area."
Jumbo: bottle that held the genie
Outside the fence is what's left of Jumbo, a cast iron vessel built as an insurance policy. Scientists were unsure if the plutonium-based bomb would work, and built Jumbo to contain the radioactive plutonium if the explosives went off but failed to trigger a chain reaction.
The 25-foot, 214-ton can was placed 800 yards from ground zero, and survived the blast. In 1946, the Army detonated eight 500-pound bombs in the bottom of the vessel, blowing both ends off but leaving much of the middle intact.
The remains of Jumbo were moved outside the fence in 1979. Today, it resembles a massive segment of pipe, 10 feet in diameter.
Just west of the test site, one of the instrument bunkers survives. The heavy concrete structure, a few feet high, is buried in sand, the tubes that led to its sensors choked with dust. Next to the bunker is a beer can, rusted beyond recognition but obviously old, from the triangular openings in the top -- it was opened with a "church key" can opener.
A home on the range
The project's base camp, 10 miles from ground zero, is long gone. So are the three bunkers where scientists triggered and monitored the explosion. But the McDonald ranch house, two miles from the blast site, remains. Here, in the master bedroom, scientists covered the windows in plastic and sealed off cracks with tape to create a "clean room" where they could assemble the bomb's core.
The Trinity test blew out most of the house's windows but left the structure of the house intact. What the bomb did not destroy, time and weather nearly did. Though the 51,500-acre test site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1975, the house was left to the elements until 1982, when the Army stabilized the house to prevent any further damage.
In 1984, the National Park Service restored the house to its July 1945 condition. The barn, its roof damaged by the blast, remains a ruin. But the house, the stone wall around it, and the rainwater cistern the Manhattan Project staff used as a swimming pool are all intact.
Today, the former Alamagordo range is the White Sands Missile Range. The bustle of the summer of 1945 is gone, and the area around the Trinity site has been largely given over to its original inhabitants: the jackrabbits, pronghorn antelope and mule deer. There are also more exotic transplants, such as the South African Oryx, and the site is occasionally opened to hunters.
It is also open to tourists twice a year, in April and October. Between public events, the site remains part of the missile range -- not in active use, but part of the area evacuated for missile tests.
A brochure for atomic tourists describes the radiation risks as minor -- one hour at the site means exposure to .5 to 1 milliroentgens of radiation, compared to 3-5 milliroentgens normally experienced in a coast-to-coast airline flight.