Blind World Magazine

Forty years after the blast.

January 22, 2006.
Helena Independent Record - Helena,MT,USA.

Forty years ago this month, on Jan. 1, 1966, 16-year old Frank Cuta and Bob Nash, 17, were involved in an explosion on the side of Mt. Helena that those of us who lived here back then will never forget.

The two teenagers had stolen from a mine near Unionville 85 sticks of dynamite, which they attached to an alarm clock on New Year’s Eve, with intentions of bringing in 1966 with a bang. But when the makeshift bomb did not detonate, the youths went back up to the site the next night to check things out.

“Bob went to cut the wires, but they touched while he was cutting and it exploded,” Cuta told the Independent Record from his hospital bed afterwards. “I was saved because Bob was between me and the dynamite.”

The explosion killed Nash, while Cuta was blinded instantly, sustaining punctured eardrums and a broken leg.

Despite injuries, today Frank Cuta (HHS class of 1967) is an electrical engineer for Batelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories in Richland, Wash. He has over 30 years of experience in the design and fabrication of digital electronic hardware, and in the development and implementation of electronic instrumentation, according to his resume. He is also an expert in the specification and integration of technical computer workstations.

He earned his bachelor’s degree from Montana State University in 1972 and his master’s at Washington State University in 1978.

Cuta, 56, is renowned in the Pacific Northwest for investigating and evaluating state-of-the-art equipment and technologies for use in solving unique scientific problems. And he has been mentioned in six different engineering publications and was featured in Baud Magazine.

And he accomplished all this despite the reckless, youthful act that forever impaired his vision.

After the explosion, Cuta spent the next seven months in the hospital, undergoing numerous surgeries at St. Peter’s and the Mayo Clinic. He eventually regained some of his sight and most of his hearing. He actually ran on coach Bill Gilbert’s cross-country team his senior year at HHS, by being able to “make out forms in front of me well enough to run a cross-country course.”

He attended MSU-Bozeman, where he could read the textbooks with a magnifying glass. Cuta used a blackboard to do his assignments, which were turned in after taking a Polaroid picture of his work. He also took part in gymnastics and judo while at Montana State.

“I learned Braille and traveled with a long white cane through the great summer school program offered as a joint project of the State Department of Services for the Blind and the Montana Association of the Blind,” Cuta explained.

Some of the projects he has designed and fabricated while with Batelle include flow calibration, a digital histographic recorder and hot water saver instrumentation. He has been heavily involved with two-phase flow instrumentation, parts recognition and materials flow control, glass melter modeling, speech synthesis for the Rubik’s Cube-solving robot, computer vision technology, applying desktop workstation technology, and sound level measurement and vibration analysis.

But perhaps Cuta’s biggest achievements are his dedicated contributions to the blind community. He is an officer with the Washington Council of the Blind, and has attended numerous American Council of the Blind conferences, where he has been a staunch advocate of better services and rights for the blind.

In the late 1980s, he was the first blind person to take part in NASA’s Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., and was instrumental in founding the blind program that is now part of the camp’s operation.

Cuta volunteers countless hours teaching the blind how to use different computer programs, and is a key figure in Washington’s Do-It program, mentoring students. He contributes programming and engineering services for the Evergreen Radio reading service, which is a daily on-the-air reading of a Tri-Cities newspaper.

“We call him ‘Fearless Frank,’” said Janice Squires, president of United Blind of Tri-Cities. “He’ll go anywhere and do anything. Frank has put his heart and soul into improving the blind community.”

And his motivational speeches at WCB conventions have inspired many.

Cuta usually begins his talks with, “Most of you are legally blind, but I am illegally blind, because I lost my sight while committing several crimes.”

Cuta’s varied hobbies, include science fiction readers, wine tasting, poetry, and collecting computer processors and Scottish Claymore swords. He owns the very first Radio Shack Apple computer, and said that he “has been podcasting for 40-years.”

He stays in shape by working out regularly on the Smith machine, a treadmill and a recumbent bicycle. Frank also enjoys fencing with a foil with his wife Judy. Cuta’s basement is the home of a sound booth, where he spends time on another hobby as a sound-man, producing folk and bluegrass music.

Although he had regained partial sight for some time, after glaucoma problems a few years ago he is once again totally blind. For the past nine years at Batelle, Cuta’s job has entailed computer support for the company’s 3,500 staff members.

Frank and his wife (who also works at Batelle) reside out in the country near the Tri-Cities, with Judy’s horse and three cats. He said that he returns to Helena occasionally, usually to celebrate the Fourth of July with his brother, Mike.

“Believe it or not, I still love fireworks,” he laughed.

CURT SYNNESS was a eighth grader at Helena Junior High at the time of the Mt. Helena explosion in 1966. He can be reached at 449-2150 or e-mail

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