It was a close call

By Mac McPhail Contributing columnist

March 23, 2014

Boy, that was a close call, and I didn’t even know it!

Of course, I was in the first grade, so I didn’t know a lot about much of anything. But, if you were alive in January of 1961, and are from this area, you had the same close call. And you didn’t know it, either. It was during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union back in the early sixties. Nuclear bomb carrying aircraft were stationed over at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro. During that time, the U.S. government kept nuclear armed aircraft in the air constantly inorder to retaliate in case of Russian attack.

On the night of January 24th, 1961, a U.S. Air Force B52 from Seymour Johnson AFB was flying a routine run along the north-east coast of the US when it got into trouble after it refueled in mid-air. The boom operator of the fuel tanker noticed pink fluid leaking from the bomber’s right wing, and soon after the wing ripped off, sending the plane into a spin. The plane broke apart over a field in Faro, about 12 miles north of Goldsboro, and two W-39 H-bombs fell out of the aircraft. Each bomb had four safety devices that were supposed to keep it from accidentally exploding.

When searchers recovered one of the bombs, they discovered that three of the four safety devices had failed.

What would have happened if the fourth safety device had also failed and the four megaton nuclear bomb had exploded? Well, I probably wouldn’t be around to write this column, and you may not have been here to read it. A blast from a four megaton nuclear bomb would have been over 250 times larger than the bomb that leveled Hiroshima, Japan, which led to the end of World War II. The blast would equal the explosion from 4 million tons of TNT.

According to Wikipedia, “Each bomb would exceed the yield of all munitions (outside of testing) ever detonated in the history of the world by TNT, gunpowder, conventional bombs, and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts combined.” But the real disaster would have been the nuclear radiation fallout. Ed Pilkington in “The Guardian” newspaper noted, “Had the device detonated, lethal fallout could have been deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and as far north as New York City – putting millions of lives at risk.” And since Sampson County was only40 miles away from the crash site, I believe we can safely assume we would have definitely been among those millions at risk, or worse.

And what would have happened to Sampson County if one of the bombs had exploded that night in 1961. What would our county be like today?

Lt. Jack Revelle was the bomb disposal expert in charge of disarming the bomb. Revelle later stated, “You might now have a very large Bay of North Carolina if that thing had gone off.” But the real damage would have been the radiation contamination from the blast. The possible long term effect on the environment could have been substantial. It could have made any crop diseases and livestock viruses we now face look like a walk in the park.

So, many of us avoided a close call in 1961. If you were born later you may think this doesn’t relate to you. But think about it. If your parents were here then, and the bomb exploded, you might not be here now. So you had a close call, and you weren’t even born yet!

It makes me wonder, how often do we face potential life threatening or life changing events, and we don’t even know it? It could have been that young teenager (or older adult who should know better) you met on the highway today, texting while driving, and not paying attention to the road. They swerved over into your lane just after going by your car. Or, maybe it was you, not paying attention to the road, crossing over the center lane, and thankfully, a vehicle is not there

. We all have had close calls. Some we know about, some we don’t. But, what if the next close call is not a close call, but a reality? We may find out that we are not as in control of our lives as we would like to think.