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Blast: The world was watching Stateline

FBI special agent Joseph Yablonsky as he appeared in the Tribune on Aug. 29, 1980.

The phone rang early, waking 22-year-old Jan Haag from a Tuesday morning sleep. The instruction on the other end of the line was to head to Harvey’s Resort Hotel. Immediately.

Phones rang early and often in the morning hours of Tuesday, Aug. 26, 1980, when a one-ton bomb disguised as a large copy machine was found on the second floor, executive level of the casino, which turned the national media spotlight and hundreds of journalists toward Stateline.

Haag was a 22-year-old self-admitted green Tahoe Daily Tribune reporter who just graduated from Sacramento State University the previous spring. Her beat was Douglas County.

Heading over to Stateline, Haag didn’t know what to expect. She began talking to people, anybody, and wrote a story for Tuesday’s afternoon edition of the paper. The headline on the front page ran “Guests Tell All About Evacuation.”

“The cops weren’t saying anything at that point,” she said from her home in Sacramento.

“I looked 16 and it was really challenging trying to get someone to talk to me,” she said.

Haag followed instructions from the paper to stay at the site. Day turned to night and back into day. She called her roommate requesting a jacket be dropped off. She called in stories.

Drained, she took a break. When the bomb went off Wednesday she was asleep in her bed at her residence near Barton Memorial Hospital. She didn’t even hear the blast.

“I remember being really bummed,” said Haag, a journalism teacher at Sacramento City College.

The right place and time

Ken Mirell said he was nominated for news awards for his photographs displaying the explosion sequence that blew out one side of the casino owned by Harvey Gross. Mirell, a Tribune photographer at the time, was able to sneak to the Sahara Tahoe, now Horizon Casino Resort.

The media mass and other observers were sequestered to the far end of the corridor near the loop road, Mirell said. He laid as low as he could on a stretch of grass about 100 yards away from Harvey’s Resort Hotel, (now called Harveys Resort Casino) his camera ready. A television crew from Sacramento was nearby. Mirell, who shared time with two other Tribune photographers during the bomb scare, didn’t know what to expect when it exploded.

“I was really apprehensive,” he said.

Radio played vital role

Skip Sayer, too, remembers the event well. As a then 20-something reporter for radio station 1490 KOWL, headquartered at the time at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, Sayer was on the outskirts of Las Vegas, following a South Shore story about disabled bicycle rider Glenn Lucky who was cycling from Tahoe to Vegas in time for the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon. He got a call from the station on Tuesday morning to report immediately back to Tahoe. All he or anyone else knew at the time was that there was a confirmed bomb inside Harvey’s and that a ransom was being sought.

The threat was so serious that then station owners Kathleen and John Parker hired a private pilot to bring Sayer back to Tahoe. He arrived at Lake Tahoe Airport Tuesday night.

“I remember getting back from the airport. It was quite a scene. There were federal agents everywhere and traffic was blocked off. It looked like all hell broke loose,” said Sayer, a longtime casino executive who now serves as executive director of the Carson Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Back in the KOWL newsroom within a bird’s-eye view of Harveys, Sayer recalls how he prepared regular live remotes to listeners, while ABC News brought in a reporter to do feeds from the station for both radio and television. Sayer did updates into the night with the KOWL audience as well as for the BBC and other media agencies outside the United States.

The morning of the bombing had an eerie feeling to it, Sayer remembers.

“I went downstairs with a tape recorder. There were still people sitting at the slot machines (inside Harrah’s) even after the evacuation order was called.

“Later, I was standing in front of Tahoe Toms, where a lot of reporters were at. I remember hearing sirens, and then a few seconds later the bomb went off,” Sayer said.

Debris from the one-ton bomb blew toward the Nevada side after bomb squad personnel had fortified part of the building to protect structures around it.

Caught in the thick of it

Delmar McCombs, 69, remembers the event. His father, also Delmar, and mother, Marjorie, were staying at Harvey’s when they were evacuated from their hotel room. Haag quoted the elder Delmar in her evacuation story.

While his father has since passed away and mother suffers from dementia, McCombs remembers seeing his father being interviewed on CBS television when Walter Cronkite was still the anchor.

“I was very proud of him,” McCombs said. “He was very calm and collected and chose his words well. Considering the situation I would have been shaking in my boots.”

The couple was evacuated so quickly from their room that McCombs said his father left his bridge on the bathroom counter. The false teeth were returned with the luggage, marked with plaster, after the bombing.

Afterwards, McCombs said he never heard his father speak much of the incident, although he suspected some embellishment when his father said the bomb was directly beneath his hotel room.

“My dad was prone to make a good story better,” McCombs said.

Sayer said it was the single biggest event he remembers in his 10 years as a news person.

“KOWL had a very loyal listenership. It was a tight community back then, and the locals turned to us to find out the latest in what was going on,” Sayer said. “As it turns out, Walter Cronkite reported it as the top story on the evening news. The world was watching us that day.”

Haag uses her story of covering the blast as a lesson for her journalism students. Two bits of advice: Don’t leave too soon and expect the unexpected.

“Even when it seems very boring,” she said.

Timeline

Tuesday, Aug. 26, 1980

5:30 a.m. Bomb wheeled into Harvey’s Resort Hotel by two men posing as technicians.

5:40 a.m. Phone call report by suspects of bomb wrapped in blankets sitting on wheels at Harveys Resort Hotel.

6 a.m. Evacuation of casino began. Authorities find typed three-page extortion letter attached to bomb demanding $3 million and a helicopter. Letter suggests detonation at 11 a.m. or midnight.

Midmorning: Bomb experts arrive with X-ray devices to survey the 1,200- pound bomb.

Afternoon and evening: FBI agents arrive. Douglas County Sheriff Jerry Maple asks law enforcement and firefighting personnel for assistance. Barton Memorial Hospital asked to remain on standby.

Authorities identified bomb as “leveler” device, where the bomb is connected to two steel boxes and sensitive to any movement.

Wednesday, Aug. 27, 1980

12:10 a.m. $3 million ransom in $100 bills signed off by casino owner Harvey Gross. Helicopter pilot reported to drop off ransom within a 15- mile radius of the club. The extortionists never showed.

2:30 a.m. Nevada Gov. Robert List issue a plea to the extortionist to contact authorities for detailed instructions on extortion money drop-off.

7:30 a.m. Extortionist calls authorities. He tells them “Go ahead and push button five and see what happens.”

Evacuation begins for entire casino corridor: Including Harrah’s, Caesars and Sahara (Horizon Casino Resort). In all 18 motels between Stateline and South Lake Tahoe evacuated. Guests by the thousands stream to George Whittell High School in Zephyr Cove.

3:48 p.m. Bomb explodes. There were no injuries in the explosion that made rubble of the casino’s bottom floor and blew out most of the windows in the 12-story 250-room facility.

Thursday, Aug. 28, 1980

Authorities declare nationwide manhunt for extortionists, said to be two men and one woman in their 30s. Harveys officials vow to reopen. Damage estimates “in the millions,” officials say.

Friday, Aug. 29, 1980

6 p.m. Harveys reopens portion of hotel and casino. Harveys offers “sizeable” award for arrest and conviction of bombers.

Friday, Aug. 14, 1981

Acting on tips, FBI agents in Clovis, a suburb of Fresno, arrest five suspects in the bombing, including John W. Birges Sr., later unidentified as the mastermind, his son John W. Birges Jr. and three others.

August 1996

After his conviction in the bombing in the early 1980s, John W. Birges Sr. dies in prison

Sources: Tahoe Daily Tribune archives, FBI

– Jeff Munson contributed to this report.