Hill Williams’ job was never boring, he said.
During 40 years as a newspaper reporter he interviewed Hanford’s Atomic Man, saw some of the last salmon netted at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River and stood at the crater of Mount St. Helens eight months after the volcano erupted in 1980.
He died earlier this month at the age of 91, just after the Washington State University Press publication of his third book, Writing the Northwest: A Reporter Looks Back.
It is a collection of some of his most memorable moments as a lifelong Washington resident and chronicler of its events, first as a reporter for the Tri-City Herald from 1948-1952 and then as a science writer for the Seattle Times.
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He grew up in Pasco, back when the city had just 3,000 people and summer days were sometimes spent kayaking on the Columbia River. The water had not yet been quieted by McNary Dam and his kayak would twirl in eddies and whirlpools, he wrote.
He described in his memoir the last time the Pasco Chamber of Commerce gave away live turkeys at Thanksgiving, an event that featured throwing the birds off a 50-foot tower.
I talked to Harold McCluskey about four years after he had suffered the biggest internal dose of radiation in any surviving nuclear worker in history.
Hill Williams in
He thinks the final turkey toss was in about 1937, five years into the Great Depression. As an 11-year-old he watched as men and a few children scrambled for the birds, which would flutter about 30 yards down a mostly vacant block.
The last turkey released was torn to bits by two dozen men fighting over it.
“My mother wept when I told her about it,” Williams wrote. “I thought then that she was sad that I didn’t get a turkey. I know now that she was weeping for those desperate men and their families.”
Decades later, as a Seattle reporter, he was one of the few journalists granted an interview by the former Hanford nuclear reservation worker known as the Atomic Man, who was radioactively contaminated in a 1976 explosion.
“I talked to Harold McCluskey about four years after he had suffered the biggest internal dose of radiation in any surviving nuclear worker in history,” Williams wrote.
By then, about 95 percent of the radioactive material deposited in and on McCluskey’s body had been removed.
When Williams visited him in Prosser, McCluskey showed him what happened when he held a radiation detector close to his jaw.
The scene resembled a medieval painting of hell.
Hill Williams in
The clicking of the detector sounded like severe radio static, Williams wrote.
McCluskey, who would die in 1987 of pre-existing heart disease, was given $275,000 in compensation by the government, Williams said.
Williams remembers visiting Celilo Falls, an ancient fishing site, as a boy. His father bought a salmon from a tribal fisherman for 25 cents.
He returned as a reporter in fall 1956, the last fishing season before The Dalles Dam was finishing and pooled water covered the falls.
“Men with long-handled dip nets stood on rickety-looking platforms built over the churning water,” Williams wrote. “Most had lifelines, sturdy ropes around their waists linked to something solid on the shore.”
He was at Mount St. Helens a couple of weeks before it erupted May 18, 1980, talking to scientists there as ash puffed up from the mountain and bits dotted his reporter’s notebook.
Months later he was back as a new lava dome formed.
“The scene resembled a medieval painting of hell,” he wrote for the Seattle Times. “Steam poured out of cracks running across the floor of the crater. Steam clouds sometimes blotted out the sun.”
This lanky grandson of Northwest pioneers lived through an age of science, medical and cultural developments that my parents couldn’t have imagined.
Hill Williams in
The last story, one of many dozens he tells in the book, is of his visit to Hiroshima, Japan, after he retired in 1991. The world’s first atomic bomb had been dropped at Hiroshima, and its second, using plutonium made at Hanford, was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.
Williams was a senior at Pasco High School when the Manhattan Project began.
“It was deeply moving, a part of history I might not have chosen,” he wrote about his visit.
Among his indelible memories from the Hiroshima museum was the story of a young girl with leukemia who believed she would be restored to health if she folded 1,000 paper cranes. She had folded 954 when she died.
It was a day of introspection and looking back at his career as a reporter, he wrote.
“This lanky grandson of Northwest pioneers lived through an age of science, medical and cultural developments that my parents couldn’t have imagined, and I had experienced much of it firsthand,” he wrote.