Retired N.C. scientists recall birth of the atomic age

RALEIGH — Sixty-five years ago today, high in the mountains of northern New Mexico, the public address system at a secret facility called Site Y — now known as Los Alamos National Laboratory — crackled to life.

Worth Seagondollar paused, along with hundreds of other scientists, engineers and technicians who had been working for years to figure out how to create the first nuclear bombs.

"Attention, please. Attention, please," the announcer said. "One of our units has just been successfully dropped on Japan."

That was it. No details about the destruction or even the name of the city that had been struck, Hiroshima.

But Seagondollar, 89, who now lives at Springmoor retirement center in North Raleigh, was one of only a handful of people who had seen an atomic bomb blast firsthand, and he knew that the world was suddenly much different.

Thousands of people had probably died in an instant, and a new weapon had been unleashed that allowed humans to kill each other in vast numbers. But it also surely meant the end of the most horrific war in world history and of the global march of fascism.

"I didn't have any feelings of regret at all," he said in an interview this week. "My feeling was that it was the beginning of the end of the Japanese war, and it was."

Later that day at another Manhattan Project site, Oak Ridge in the Tennessee mountains, Raymond Murray came home to his hastily-built government house where his wife had learned a secret he had been keeping. She had heard about the bomb on the radio.

"I finally know what you've been doing all this time," she said.

Seagondollar and Murray both later came to teach at N.C. State University's physics department and became department heads. By coincidence, Murray, now 90, also lives at Springmoor, making that retirement center an unusual repository of the memories of how the atomic age was born.

Murray and Seagondollar have given many talks on the bomb program, and Murray still makes annual presentations to groups of high school students who come to NCSU each summer and to a group at MIT.

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