The Trinity Site — Day One, double sunrise

Black and white photo of the Ground Zero tower, displayed along the north fence.
Photo by Jim Reed

Looking west towards the Ground Zero Monument

Day One of the Atomic Age, I imagine during the eighty mile drive from Alamogordo to Trinity Site, New Mexico, was much like today except for the early morning rain postponing the experiment from 4:00 to 5:30 a.m. Darkness filled the elongated valley bordered by mountains of hard granite, solidified lava flows and eroded mesas.

The rain was undoubtedly welcomed by the sparse yet hardy vegetation decorating the valley floor. The rare summer moisture provided relief from the searing, relentless desert heat - a brief chance to rejoice and replenish moments before disappearring in an unnatural and previously unknown manner. Except for the sound of our 200 vehicle convoy headed to Ground Zero, Day One was sunny, windless and serene, just like today.

In a valley twenty or so million years of age, change comes slowly. A picture taken sixteen million years ago would look very much like a picture taken a million years later. On Day One, July 16, 1945, at Trinity Site’s Ground Zero, change came quickly.

Many visitors to the twice-annual viewing of Trinity Site will be disappointed. There isn’t much to see. The fifteen foot deep and 400 foot wide crater created by the world’s first atomic detonation has been filled. The tower from which the bomb was dropped virtually disintegrated from the blast; only a small display of one concrete footing remains. The earth supports life once again:  Wild desert grasses, miniature tumbleweeds, small yellow flowers and bachelor buttons grow where many expected scorched earth.

The replica Fat Man bomb casing.
Photo by Jim Reed

Looking west towards the Ground Zero Monument

Along the far fence are historical displays of black and white photos taken on Day One. A flatbed truck displays a replica of Fat Man, a bomb casing similar to the ones used less than a month later to drop atomic bombs on Japan. A shelter has been created to protect a small portion of the original crater and to display Trinitite, a glass-like, jade green material found in the crater, newly created radioactive stone fused by the bombs caramelizing of the desert sand. The massive light and heat created by the blast remains incomprehensible to today’s visitor. One of the contributing scientists, Dr. Phillip Morrison, said, “Suddenly, not only was there a bright light, but where we were ten miles away, there was the heat of the sun on our faces . . . Then, only minutes later, the real sun rose and again you felt the same heat to the face from the sunrise. So, we saw two sunrises.”

Most obvious and impressionable to the visitor is the Ground Zero Monument, a lava stone and concrete obelisk erected to commemorate the exact site where history, for good or bad, changed. Children and families stand in typical rigid, smiling tourist poses and have their pictures taken. One man touches the lava stone briefly, removes his hand and examines it, as if expecting it to change from the area’s mild radioactivity. Some stand silently and gaze, mildly dazed; silent thoughts and questions are easily read in their faces. “Was this a good thing to have happened? Is the world better off for this experiment? It was inevitable, eventually someone was to have done it, if not us.”

Two of today’s visitors are Linda and Ron Stevenson of Decatur, Tennessee. While visiting Linda’s brother in Alamogordo they took advantage of the semi-annual event and joined the eighty mile motor convoy from Alamogordo to Trinity Site. Linda is surprised that radiation levels are low enough at Trinity Site to allow public visitation. Her interest piqued, she plans an in-depth study of the literature she was given in Alamogordo. For now she admits to having, “a lot of mixed feelings and emotions” about the site and the history created here. “My husband and I expected the area to be devoid of vegetation. We are surprised.”

Reverend Brian and wife Melinda Hodge and their three children of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico made the journey to Trinity Site, entering White Sands Missile Range from Stallion Gate to the north where a vehicle convoy is not necessary. When asked if she understands what happened here, eight year-old daughter Jasmine answers, “They blew off a bomb here, a Fat Man bomb.” Reverend Brian provides the thought, “This experiment possibly saved many lives by preventing a United States land invasion of Japan. I’m not sure if the world is safer today because of it.”

There may not be much to see at Trinity Site today, but the feelings, visions and impressions of the experiment and history created here provoke thought deep within the observer and are indelible.

Trinity Site, New Mexico, a part of White Sands Missile Range, is open from 9:00 am to 2:00 p.m. on the first Saturday of April and October.