In forensic engineering, we look at accidents a little differently than most people. We need to find out how an accident occurred so that we can determine culpability and learn how to prevent a recurrence, since consequences can be grave. How grave? Well, take the time we nearly nuked Arkansas.
WHAT? What did Arkansas ever do to anybody? Why doesn’t everyone know about this? How did this happen?
It’s true—somehow the fact that the American heartland was nearly turned into a wasteland has escaped the notice of most people. In 1980, a missile silo just 50 miles outside of Little Rock had a disaster that ranks among the most dangerous to occur on U.S. soil, nearly resulting in the detonation of one of the largest nuclear warheads ever produced.
The Clintons, who were at the time the governor and first lady of the state, would have likely been immediate casualties of the blast, along with thousands in the vicinity (including the vice president of the United States). The fallout from the explosion would have affected millions.
There have been many nuclear mishaps in the U.S. that almost ended in disaster. There was that time that a B-52 accidentally dropped a couple of hydrogen bombs on North Carolina, the fatal Idaho Falls reactor explosion, or that incident when we almost lost Detroit due to a nuclear meltdown.
Though they don’t like to talk about it, accidents with nuclear weapons are common enough that the U.S. military has a name for them—“Broken Arrow.” There have been 32 Broken Arrow incidents that we know about, and likely hundreds more that we don’t.
As bad as many of those were, the accident in Arkansas is near the top of the list for potential devastation.
Let’s see what happened.
1980 Damascus Titan Missile Explosion
In 1980, we were still in the clutches of the Cold War. Missile silos hidden around the country had to be ready at a moment’s notice to deliver their deadly payloads to America’s enemies.
The Little Rock Air Force Base was home to Strategic Air Command bombers, as well as a silo housing a Titan II ICBM. On top of that missile was a 9-megaton nuclear warhead, the highest yield ever deployed on a U.S. missile. We’re talking about a bomb that produces a fireball three miles in diameter! The heat alone would likely vaporize anyone or anything within 10 to 20 miles.
Lest you think that it’s only the immediate area that was in danger, the fallout from such a blast could affect anywhere from 4,000 to 50,000 square miles (depending on wind), reaching Indianapolis, Kansas City…or even the Dallas–Fort Worth area.
Obviously, something that dangerous has many fail-safes, is extremely well maintained by highly-trained experts, and operates under the strictest of safety protocols. You might think so, but you would be wrong.
This devastating weapon contained more than three times the power of every bomb dropped during World War II combined (that’s including the nukes!), but its delivery systems were very outdated for the time, and the maintenance … well, let’s take a look at that.
The nuclear technicians (called PTS teams) conducting maintenance on Little Rock’s Titan II that September night were a mere 19 and 21 years old. As the young airmen entered the eight-story missile silo, they realized they had brought a ratchet rather than the specified torque wrench.
This isn’t the type of mistake most of us would allow with our cars, but due to time constraints (it takes a long time to go in and out), the PTS team went ahead with their work. It’s a big missile, so we are talking about a ratchet that weighs 25 pounds and a socket that weighs eight pounds.
Wouldn’t it be unfortunate to drop that socket from eight stories up? Yes, it would. That’s why engineers specified that the work area not include any gaps and called for a specialized wrench.
As the crew checked the pressure of the oxidizer tank, that eight-pound socket fell off the ratchet, dropping 70–80 feet, where it then bounced off a thruster mount and into the missile’s first-stage fuel tank.
Aerozine fuel began pouring out into the silo.
As you might expect, nearby is a control room with military officers and technicians keeping an eye on this thing, and all their lights, bells, and alarms started going off at once.
No one likes to get into trouble, and I can’t imagine being in any more trouble than accidentally breaking a nuclear weapon, but there are times when it’s important to tell the truth, and quickly.
In this case, the technicians played dumb at first, not telling the OIC (Officer in Charge) why rocket fuel was suddenly hemorrhaging from their missile. This delayed an appropriate response and their own evacuation, making matters worse.
An aside: Many bombs, particularly modern designs, aren’t likely to detonate just because they are impacted or even swallowed up in a fireball. However, that’s not true for this bomb. By 1980, this particular massive weapon was obsolete, but hadn’t been sidelined yet because the Titan IIs could be traded away in some future arms-control negotiation. It was old and, despite what the government was reporting at the time, engineers with firsthand knowledge of the situation were very concerned that when that leaking rocket fuel mixed with the oxidizer stored above it, the resultant massive explosion could also detonate the warhead on top of the missile.
After those in charge recognized the potential disaster in front of them, they evacuated the launch center, and response teams came in to contain the situation. Senior Airman David Livingston reentered the silo to turn on an exhaust fan, but while he was in there, the fuel exploded.
The initial explosion shot the door, the warhead, and the second stage of the missile out of the silo. The 740-ton door was found 600 feet from where it should have been. The second stage of the missile exploded after being propelled into the air, while the warhead wasn’t found until the next morning, lying in a ditch near the entry gate to the complex.
The explosion killed Senior Airman Livingston and injured 21 others at the site.
Fortunately, the warhead didn’t detonate. The safety features worked, but that was as much due to luck as it was design. No one had any idea what would happen with this type of accident, so there were no procedures for responding to it.
If You Don’t Know What Went Wrong, You Can’t Fix It
The Titan II incident nearly wiped out Arkansas, yet it was set in motion by a dropped socket. The scary thing about an incident like this is that it started with such a normal accident—who hasn’t dropped a tool while they were working?
Most industrial accidents result from something simple—a trivial mistake, ignoring safety for the sake of saving time, or overlooking problems in the name of efficiency. As I’ve learned through years of experience as a forensic engineer, we can’t count on everyone following the proper safety procedures: If there’s a shortcut, someone will take it. If there’s room for mistakes, someone will make one. So the bigger the equipment, the more we need to analyze stress and over-engineer the safety features. Otherwise, a dropped socket could obliterate a city.