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Recalling The Big Botulism Outbreak of 1978 in Clovis, New Mexico

Clovis, New Mexico is usually known for Cannon Air Force Base and the Norman Petty Recording Studios.   Cannon is home of the Air Force’s Special Operations Command.  Petty’s studio recorded Buddy Holly’s first chart-topping hits.   Clovis, however, is known for something else.  Something that happened 30 years ago—a botulism outbreak that killed two and made 30 others sick, some very seriously.

Don McAlavy, Clovis News Journal columnist, recalled what happened:

One of the most dreaded food-borne poisons known to man struck Curry County on Friday night, April 4, 1978. A group of people were at a banquet in the old Colonial Park Country Club that night. Some 30 members of that group became slightly ill to very ill. It was the dreaded botulism that killed two people in that group. One of them was John Garrett Jr., a noted farmer at Claud.

Dr. Jonathan Mann, state health officer, said the area is extremely fortunate that help for the victims were able to mobilize to assist victims in this tragic case. Cannon AFB Hospital had air-evacuation aircraft to fly patients to Albuquerque when first alerted.

All day Saturday and Sunday, volunteers from all walks of life called the hundreds of people that were known to have eaten at the club in the past week.

As patients were hospitalized in Clovis, Albuquerque, Lubbock, Amarillo, El Paso and Santa Fe, Dr. Mann arranged for anti-toxin to be flown in from all over the country.

For the rest of McAlavy’s look-back, go here.

  • Terrell Garrett

    Unfortunately Mr. McAlvay was incorrect. It was Easter Sunday at the Colonial Park Country Club. My grandfather John Garrett died as the result of the botulism. The other case which was extremely serious was Scoop Bomar who eventually survived and lived out her life. I do remember dentist Jake Moberly was significantly affected but not nearly as much as Scoop. My brother also ate the three bean salad but was unaffected.
    Scoop was in the hospital in Amarillo and was the first to be diagnosed. My grandfather was hospitalized in Lubbock and we were unaware of Scoop’s condition despite the close family friendships until a few hours before my grandfather’s death. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the information in time. Scoop was hospitalized for one year and was fed intraveneously for most of that period. After release she swam regularly to rebuild her body. Tough lady and a great friend to my parents until her natural death a few years ago.

  • Rick Chastain

    It was actually Friday night. I was a medical technologist at Cannon AFB working part time at the hospital. We were up the emergency room doctor when the patients started coming in. It was an extremely long weekend as most of us never left the hospital. I also made the call to Cannon AFB, more specifically to Col. J. Begin to get the people air evaced.

    • desert28moon

      Actually, it depended upon when a person was exposed to the botulinum toxin and how long it had been in their system. When they began showing up in hospitals was about 12 to 24 to 48 hours later, and also, don’t forget, the country club had no idea they had one or possibly two contaminated salads and were serving these again that Friday and Saturday… It all blew up Saturday, our story in the Clovis News-Journal was the Sunday edition.

  • Lynn (Hunter) Lind

    I was sitting in the newsroom of the Clovis News-Journal on that April 1978 Saturday a little after noon when it became apparent that “something” was terribly wrong as many of the local residents were hospitalized at all the major regional hospitals, ranging from Albuquerque to Texas to as far away as one military hospital in El Paso, Texas.
    There had been an FFA banquet at the Country Club one evening. My recollection is that it was on Thursday night of that week. My boss from the newspaper, Bill Southard, attended and covered the banquet for the newspaper. He later told me, “I didn’t get potato salad that night, but what if I had?!”
    My recollection is that the salads were removed from the buffet that night and placed into a refrigerator and brought out again the next day, and possibly again even on Saturday, following that banquet. Perhaps things are done differently now. But that is what I recall.
    This is why it was so difficult to determine exactly how many people had been affected, as they were having these unusual symptoms and coming in to the hospital over an on-going period of time, 12 hours or more later, and then were being moved to larger regional hospitals.
    It took a number of hours for the botulinum toxin to set in, then various systems in the body shut down or became paralyzed until it worked its way to the “respiratory” system, and an untreated person would die from suffocation.
    My recollection is that the majority of the victims were at one time put on respirators for up to two weeks, possibly longer. Recovery from this was lengthy, like a year or more, and of course, there were those who died.
    My recollection is that the makers of the mayonnaise paid. I previously had been a courts reporter in Roswell, New Mexico, and knew Judge Paul Snead and his court reporter Clarence Blair very well from those years.
    Imagine my surprise when I walked into the court proceeding on this case to find my old “friends” Snead and Blair in the court room. Local judges had recused themselves from the case as they knew some of the victims.
    So there were more than 30 lawyers in the room… As it depended upon each person’s insurance company or companies as to how many lawyers might be representing each person.
    Judge Snead, who liked to tell stories and liked to tell jokes, said he felt like he was presiding “at a tea party.” Also, that all he knew to do was “call roll.” So he began calling out the victims’ names and one or two or three lawyers would stand up and identify themselves when their clients’ names were called.
    It was speculated that the large serving spoon from one salad (it is thought the potato salad…) was transferred by people going through the buffet line to another salad (possibly the three bean salad), and this complicated the issue of exactly which salad “caused” the outbreak. But it is my clear recollection that the makers of the mayonnaise paid.
    Also what has stuck with me over the years (other than a subconscious recoiling at the sight of “old food”) is my remembrance of one of the state health department investigators telling me how long canned food “should be” boiled before eating to be perfectly safe …. something like 7 to 8 minutes!
    Years later when working as a reporter in another small New Mexico community (after the internet was going…), I recall reading a botulism warning on the website maintained by the makers of the mayonnaise.
    I have seen an email making the circuit, which brought to mind all these things recently, as it put forth that food makers now make mayonnaise at a pH that is higher than in the past and that mayonnaise today no longer requires refrigeration and can sit in the sun without developing harmful bacteria! I do not know if this is true or not, or if this an “urban legend,” but I do know that I will not be setting my mayonnaise in the sun and then eating it! Nor will I receive any Bo-Tox treatments!!!

  • Brenda Brooks

    It was a Friday night. My father was the administrator at the hospital, and got a call when the patients came in. I went with him as one of the many volunterrs to help. It was a nightmare–so many sick people in a tiny ER in a small town.

  • Laura

    It was the pimentos in the potato salad that were the culprit. Dr Moberly was my dentist and I remember him being terribly afflicted. It was a horrible scary time in Clovis.

  • Lynn Hunter Lind

    I believe the disparity in the “times” reported by everyone is really an individual thing… It depended upon when the individual had consumed the contaminated food, and then the usual period of some hours had to pass before the symptoms began. And then one victim described to me that the symptoms were so “weird” (strange paralysis..) that she put off doing anything about it for more time.. So everyone is correct from that perspective…