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It was half past midnight on March 17th, 1968. Keith Smart, the director of epidemiology and ecology at Utah's Dugway Proving Grounds, was awakened by the ringing of a phone. On the other end was Dr. Bode, a professor at the University of Utah, and the director of the school's contract with Dugway. There was a problem. Calls had been coming in. About 27 miles outside of the base, in the aptly-named Skull Valley, thousands of sheep had suddenly died. There were some survivors among the flocks, but it was clear that their hours were numbered. Veterinarians were dispatched to euthanize the few remaining animals.
Army officials began drafting their official denial. A few days earlier, one of their planes had flown high over the Utah desert at Dugway with a bellyful of nerve agent. The plane's mission was simple: using a specially rigged delivery system, it was to fly to a specific set of coordinates and spray its payload over a remote section of the Utah desert. This test was a small part of the ongoing chemical and biological weapons research at Dugway, and it was one of three tests held that particular day. The flight would soon prove to be far more important than anyone could have guessed at the time.
The sprawling 800,000 acres of Dugway Proving Ground is a mix of target ranges, dispersal grounds, laboratories, and military bunkers. The facility was established in the 1940s to provide the military with a remote locale to conduct safer testing. It was briefly shut down following World War 2, but the base enjoyed a grand reopening during the Korean War. By 1958, it was the official home of the Army Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Weapons School. The base tested all manner of unconventional military hardware; from researching new toxic agents to developing antidotes and protective clothing.
In March 1968, the toxin under scrutiny was VX, one of the most potent nerve agents in existence. The original compound was created by Ranajit Ghosh, a chemist working at Imperial Chemical Industries. The liquid proved to be an effective pesticide and it was quickly put on the market under the name Amiton. Not long afterwards, however, it was taken off the market for being too toxic to handle safely. The agent's extreme toxicity drew the attention of government weapons research labs, whose scientists were always on the lookout for more efficient ways to kill people. Amiton, the pesticide too successful for its own good, was to become the “V” class of nerve agent. The majority of the research done on V-Class agents went into developing a potent weapons-grade version of the chemical. That research birthed VX.
VX was a triumph among the biological warfare community. Odorless and tasteless, it's three times as toxic as Sarin. In initial trials, this over-achieving compound was also found to be highly stable, enabling long shelf life and environmental persistence. VX works by blocking chemicals in the victim's body from functioning. It prevents the enzyme acetylcholinesterase from allowing muscles to relax, resulting in the contraction of every muscle in the body. Exposure to a minute or diluted dose of VX will cause muscle twitching, drooling, excessive sweating, and involuntary defecation, among other unpleasantries. Exposure to a lethal dose — about ten milligrams — will cause convulsions, paralysis, and eventually asphyxiation due to sustained contraction of the diaphragm muscle. Unless the affected skin is cleaned and an antidote is administered immediately, a single drop of liquid VX will kill a person in around ten minutes.