A road engineer for the Highway Division of the Oregon Department of Transportation, Thornton was on duty on November 12, 1970, when a 45-foot-long, 8-ton sperm whale washed up on a beach near Florence. At the time, the agency had jurisdiction over beaches, and Thornton was called in to decide what to do about the dead whale, which was starting to rot and stink. Thornton thought about it: it wouldn’t do to tow it out to sea, he thought, since it would just wash back ashore. And it wouldn’t be advisable to bury it, since it would take a lot of equipment to dig the hole deep enough and, besides, wouldn’t the waves just uncover it again? So after consulting with the Navy, he decided to blow it up, with 20 cases of dynamite. “The exploding whale,” notes technology news site The Register, “shower[ed] spectators, the beach and nearby parked cars with blubber and whale bits.” And some of the “bits” weighed dozens, if not hundreds, of pounds. “The humor of the entire situation suddenly gave way to a run for survival as huge chunks of whale blubber fell everywhere,” deadpans KATU-TV’s Paul Linnman in a video report on the story. The video showed at least one car was flattened by the falling chunks o’ whale.
Wait! There’s a video!? Yes indeed: and sure enough, in the 1990s someone posted a copy of the station’s video report online. “The Exploding Whale” (the video) exploded in popularity, “and so created what was probably the first truly viral video,” The Register says. Thornton was deeply embarrassed by the failure to obliterate the whale, and didn’t like that it went viral online. When Linnman asked Thornton for an interview years later, Thornton refused, saying “whenever I talk to the media, it blows up in my face.” Linnman said “I don’t think he was trying to be funny” with the comment. “It’s just the way he felt.” After 37 years on the job, Thornton retired from the Oregon DOT in 1984 — before the video went viral. He died on October 27, at 84.