June 04, 1979 12:00 PM

The victory celebration seemed more like a wake, and that was fitting. In a motel room on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, 54-year-old house painter Bill Silkwood nursed a vodka and 7-Up while his wife, Merle, took the scrap-book she has kept for over four years and pasted in the newspaper headlines: “$10.5 MILLION VERDICT SHOCKER…SILKWOOD ESTATE WINS.”

That morning the Silkwoods’ daughter, Karen, had been vindicated by the largest award for punitive damages ever made, after the longest civil trial in Oklahoma history. Karen, a lab technician at the Kerr-McGee nuclear plant near Crescent, Okla., had been so thoroughly contaminated with deadly Plutonium in 1974 that an expert testified she was “married to cancer.” Determined to use her own case as a warning of nuclear danger, she had allegedly amassed evidence of safety lapses at Kerr-McGee. Then, en route with the evidence to meet her boyfriend, Drew Stephens, and a New York Times reporter, she was killed when her car inexplicably went off the road into a ditch. The manila envelope containing her alleged evidence was never found. The jury’s award—$10.5 million in all—went to her three young children, now aged 8 to 12.

“Today,” said her father in the motel room, “we cleared her name.” But there was little triumph in his voice. For Karen Silkwood’s parents, the last four and a half years have been agonizing. Long before the 11-week trial began, Bill quit his job to work on the case, while Merle supported them as a bank clerk back home in Nederland, Texas. The jury of six was prohibited from seeing The China Syndrome (inspired in part by the Silkwood case) or following the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. Bill Silkwood maintained a grim silence in court while lawyers for Kerr-McGee tried assiduously to paint Karen, a divorcée, as a pot-smoking, suicidal, even promiscuous woman.

Now free to tell his side of the bizarre case, Bill Silkwood recalls the November night in 1974 when a state trooper knocked on the door to notify them of Karen’s death. “It didn’t take long at all to figure out something was suspicious,” says Bill. By then Karen had known about her contamination for nine days. Monitors at the plant had detected it, and an inspection of her home showed radiation in her living room and kitchen—even in a sandwich in the refrigerator.

Kerr-McGee argued that Karen contaminated herself to embarrass the company—and police theorized that she had fallen asleep at the wheel. Her parents dismiss both notions as absurd. “Every night she called scared and crying,” her mother recalls. “She thought she was dying. I told her to quit and come home, but she felt she had to stay and clean that plant up.” She had, moreover, called her boyfriend just 15 minutes before she was killed to say she was coming with the evidence. “If she was so excited, she couldn’t have fallen asleep at the wheel,” says Mrs. Silkwood. “And she was too good a driver.”

Bill Silkwood, who demanded an autopsy on Karen, eventually flew to Washington, where NOW labor leader Sara Nelson and civil rights lawyer Daniel Sheehan, chief counsel of the Silkwood legal team, worked frantically to lodge a civil suit against Kerr-McGee before the two-year statute of limitations ran out. “I couldn’t stand what they were saying about Karen,” says her father. “I had to finish up what she was trying to do.”

So he did, with repercussions (if the verdict is upheld on appeal) for the whole nuclear industry. Yet haunting questions about the Silkwood case remain. How did her apartment become contaminated? Both sides admit her urine sample was spiked with a radioactive substance—but by whom? Was her car bumped from behind before the crash, as one expert stated? And what happened to the evidence she was carrying, allegedly pertaining to faulty welds in Kerr-McGee fuel rods? The answers could come from a separate civil rights trial, scheduled for next year, that will address the issue of how she met her death. In a way, it will be an anticlimax for the Silkwoods, who declined the invitation of their supporters to join in a memorial service on the spot where Karen died. The verdict, said Bill, was “service enough. We did what Karen would have wanted.”

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