Have you ever been using a ratchet wrench and dropped a socket attachment? No big deal. Well, that’s unless you’re working on a nuclear missile. In that case, you could have possibly caused the worst disaster in U.S. history. And it almost happened in Arkansas, at a nuclear missile silo, in 1980. A recent program on PBS, “Command and Control,” told the fascinating and really scary story.
On September 19, 1980, two airman were working on a Titan missile inside the missile silo. The missile was armed with a nuclear warhead, 600 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. A socket fell off one of the airmen’s ratchet wrench and fell 80 feet, puncturing a hole in the Titan’s missile’s fuel cell, releasing highly explosive gases.
The Air Force did what they could to control the situation, fearing that the missile would explode. The possibility of the nuclear warhead then detonating was real, and its explosion and radiation would be a disaster and possibly fatal for thousands of people living within hundreds of miles of the site.
The Titan missile did explode, killing one airman, and injuring many others. But the nuclear bomb miraculously never did explode. The Titan missile explosion separated the nuclear warhead from its detonator, which kept it from exploding. The nuclear warhead was later found several hundred yards away from the explosion site in a ditch. That’s right, the nuclear bomb that could have killed thousands ended up in a ditch!
You didn’t hear much about the Arkansas missile explosion. The reason was that the Air Force did whatever they could to keep it quiet. The media was misled, and kept away from the explosion site and from the airman involved. If all the facts came out, they knew the public would react negatively. Especially if they lived near a nuclear weapon site. By the way, we lived pretty near to a nuclear site. And there was a similar incident that the Air Force did its best to keep quiet.
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 in order 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 only forty miles away from the crash site, I believe we can safely assume we would have definitely been among those millions at risk, or worse.
So maybe our nuclear concern should not had been only about the Russians, who back in the Sixties, had their missiles in Cuba. Or today, the current wacko who is firing off, mostly unsuccessfully, missiles in North Korea. Maybe our greatest nuclear threat has come from a dropped ratchet socket and a mixed up refueling stop. And we didn’t even know it. It makes me wonder, “What else don’t we know?”
Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.