Jeffrey Plumb, PTS Team: I was fairly new to working out on the missile sites. At the age of 19, you know, you’ve got that no fear mentality. Right above us was a nine megaton thermonuclear warhead. To see the magnitude of that weapon within ten feet from you. It was a monster waiting to go off. When you think about working on a weapon of mass destruction, you’re counting on everything to work perfect all the time, and things just don’t work perfect all the time.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: The first thing that my commander heard are the words “uh oh.”
Dave Powell, PTS Team: The fuel vapors in the silo are just climbing and climbing and climbing
Jeffrey Plumb, PTS Team: We need to get the hell out of this complex. Cause this thing’s gonna blow up
Skip Rutherford Aide to Senator David Pryor: Do we let the world know? Do I run out and say, “we’ve got a potential nuclear explosion? What do you do?
12 Hours Earlier, Missile Combat Crew
ARC: Complex 3-1 has a phase 14 missile age inspection. Complex 3-2…
Rodney Holder, Missile Combat Crew: That day, September 18th, it was basically five days before my 24th birthday. So I was 23, Lt Alan Childers, Missile Combat Crew was 24, was the deputy.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: When we went out on alert on a Titan system, we were on alert for 24 hours, that’s what a tour was, 24 hours. We had 18 silos that were spread all the way out to the eastern corner of Arkansas. We went up the main highway to a certain point and then you had to pull off the highway on to much smaller roads. Until you came over a particular rise, you wouldn’t even know that the missile complex was there.
Rodney Holder, Missile Combat Crew: As we drove up to missile complex 4-7, it’s very unassuming. There’s not a lot there. There’s this huge door, and there’s some antennas. However, underneath that door was the most powerful warhead that the US has ever operated.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: Before you left the base, they gave you some codes that gave you access to the complex. You would read the code to the commander and then you would take a lighter, set the codes on fire and drop them down into a box so they would burn up and no one else could use those codes. All four of the crewmembers went down three flights of stairs. At the bottom of that, you got to a blast door. There were a series of blast doors: 6, 7, 8, and 9. So you’d walk through this and you’d step into the middle level of the launch control center, with all of the equipment that you needed to maintain the missile. When we took charge of a complex that meant that we owned that missile until the next crew came out. So, if we went to war, we were prepared to launch those weapons on command.
ARC: Aps power, silo soft, guidance go, we’re standing by for fire engine.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: We never knew what our specific targets were, because you didn’t really want to know who you were going to destroy.
ARC: Turning on my command, everybody turn keys on the word keys we will turn, is the crew ready? B-Man? B-Man’s Ready. MFT? MFT ready. Deputy? Deputy ready. Crew is ready. Ready…
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: You had to be prepared to destroy an entire civilization, and we were trained on that. As heartless as it sounds, I never had a problem with it, I was doing it for my country, I was doing it to protect my country. The whole reason I sat out there was to prevent that kind of thing from happening, that’s what deterrence was about. But deterrence is worthless if you don’t demonstrate that you’re willing to do it too, and we always had to demonstrate that I would walk out there and turn those keys in a second and I would kill ten million people and never hesitate.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: Every time I went on to a complex, every time I saw the Titan II missile, I had the same sense of excitement. You couldn’t see the warhead from the bottom cause you were eight stories down and the cone of the warhead disappeared off in the distance. The warhead on top of the Titan II was three times as powerful as all the bombs used by all of the armies in the 2nd world war, including both the atomic bombs. When the crewmembers successfully turned the keys, the 330,000 pound missile would lift up out of the silo.
Rodney Holder, Missile Combat Crew: And it would head out for about five minutes of powered flight to the edge of space, fly for another twenty minutes, and hit its target halfway around the world.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: Before September 18th, the only warheads that we thought would go off in the United States would be Soviet warheads. We never considered that our own warheads could detonate on our own continent.
Trinity Test Site, New Mexico, July, 1945
Eric Schlosser, Author, Command and Control: From the very beginning of the atomic age, there has been a sense of this immense power just being on the verge of slipping out of our control. The world’s first nuclear device was fully assembled in a small tent in the middle of the desert. Nobody was sure what would happen when this thing would detonate. They were even concerned that when the first nuclear device detonated, the earth’s atmosphere would catch on fire and every single living thing on earth would die. And yet they did the test anyway.
Eric Schlosser, Author, Command and Control: After the war ended, an engineering section of the nuclear weapons program became known as the Sandia laboratory, and Sandia became America’s first atomic bomb factory.
Bob Peurifoy, Director of Weapon Development, Sandia: I realized if I joined Sandia, I would be working on atomic bombs, and that was okay with me. We were driven by the fear of the Soviet Union. Anything we conceived of the military wanted and money was free.
Eric Schlosser, Author, Command and Control: As the technology improved, as the number of nuclear weapons in our arsenal increased, there were soon assembly lines for making nuclear weapons. We had bombers in the air at all times loaded with nuclear weapons. We had submarines that had missiles carrying nuclear warheads. It was feared that the Soviets would have far more missiles than the United States, so we went on a huge missile-building binge. At one point we only thought we needed 50 to 200 nuclear weapons to completely annihilate the Soviet Union, and by the mid 1960s we had 32,000 nuclear weapons. But every one of those weapons you build not only threatens your enemy, but poses a threat to yourself.
September 18, 1980, 11:30 AM, Missile complex 374-7
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: September 18th was one of those days where nothing was going the way it was supposed to go.
Rodney Holder, Missile Combat Crew: that day, September 18th we find out that they have a problem with the oxidizer tank, that the pressure is a little bit low.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: Each stage of the missile had two separate tanks. One was filled with fuel and the other was filled with oxidizer.
Rodney Holder, Missile Combat Crew: All you gotta do is mix those two fuels and you’re going to have an explosion. We called back to base, they said we have a maintenance team coming out. A specialized unit, they called them the PTS team.
Propellant Transfer System, The PTS Team
Dave Powell, PTS Team: The difference between PTS people and any other person on a missile site is we get to play with fuel and oxidizer and they don’t. I loved PTS. I loved my job. My major goal at that time was to be a PTS team chief, and be the best PTS team chief ever.
Jeffrey Plumb, PTS Team: When I arrived at Little Rock Air Force base, I would have been 19, yeah, ah no 18, my birthday is in March so I would have been one month away from being 19. I think I was ready to take on the world at that point. I wanted to go out to the field and work on that Titan II missile, you know, we called it a bird and I wanted to work on the birds, you know?
Dave Powell, PTS Team: Oxidizer, when you breathe it, it turns to nitric acid. And you basically drown in your lungs if you breathe enough of it.
Greg Devlin, PTS Team: We would work 12, 14 hour, up to 16 hour shifts, and then go to sleep, and then 5 hours later or so you get up and head back in for another 12, 13, or 14 hour day.
Dave Powell, PTS Team: On September 18th, we’d had a long week, we had the next day off, so when we finished the maintenance task at the site that we were at, you know, we thought we were done. Our team chief called back to the base to tell them we were on our way back and they said, well before you come back we want you to stop over at 4-7 at Damascus. When we got there, they didn’t have the right part. They had to bring the part out on a helicopter. I’d say we waited from 3:30 to about 6:00 in the evening before we could actually enter the silo. We had been on duty about eleven and a half hours.
Dave Powell, PTS Team: So we started down the cableway to the silo when all of a sudden I realized that I had forgotten the torque wrench up in the truck. There was a change in the checklist that we were supposed to use a torque wrench from here on out, but that was a recent change. I had spent 3 years basically taking the pressure cap off with a ratchet. And so instead of sending somebody back to get the torque wrench, I grabbed the ratchet to do that. The ratchet’s about 3 feet long and the socket is about 8 pounds. And I radioed to the team chief that we’re ready to begin the checklist for pressurization of stage 2 oxidizer tank.
Jeffrey Plumb, PTS Team: We had a problem with that ratchet. It wouldn’t allow Dave to actually get the socket to clip or snap into place to be secure. He held the socket up against the dust cap and he put the ratchet up against it.
Dave Powell, PTS Team: Basically you hold it with one hand on that ratchet handle and one hand cradles the head of the ratchet with the socket on it.
Jeffrey Plumb PTS Team: And so I got on the end of it and kind of gave it a little force and I remember saying to him “you got this?” “yeah, I got it, I got it, let go of it.”
Dave Powell, PTS Team: And I go to pick it up and the socket falls off the end of the ratchet.
Jeffrey Plumb, PTS Team: Just boom, right through the hole and just straight down. As it was falling I was thinking “oh no, oh no, oh no”. I wanted to jump after that thing.
Dave Powell, PTS Team: Anytime I want I can close my eyes and see that socket. I see the socket bouncing off the platform. I see my RFHCO glove reaching for it. And I see it falling in slow motion. Seventy feet, hitting the thrust mount like it had eyeballs. And then a stream of fuel coming out of the missile.
Jeffrey Plumb, PTS Team: I was just in total shock. I think we both just looked at each other for a second and, and we’re like “oh my god, what are we gonna do?” That missile was just blowing fuel. Then the magnitude set in as far as what could happen. The destructive force if that thing exploded and we can’t stop it.
Goldsboro, North Carolina, January 24, 1961
Eric Schlosser, Author, Command and Control: 19 years before the Damascus accident, a B-52 bomber carrying two powerful hydrogen bombs took off on a routine mission over North Carolina. During the mission, the plane experienced a fuel leak and suddenly the B-52 began to break apart mid-air. As the fuselage was spinning and heading back towards Earth, the centrifugal forces pulled on a lanyard in the cockpit, and that lanyard was pulled exactly the way it would be if a crewmember wanted to release its hydrogen bombs over enemy territory.
Bob Peurifoy, Director of Weapon Development, Sandia: Bombs are relatively dumb. They sort of think that if you drop the bomb out of the bomb bay, you must have intended to do that.
Eric Schlosser, Author, Command and Control: One of the weapons in particular went through all of its arming steps to detonate, and when that weapon hit the ground, a firing signal was sent. And the only thing that prevented a full-scale detonation of a powerful hydrogen bomb in North Carolina was a single safety switch.
Bob Peurifoy, Director of Weapon Development, Sandia: All it is a two-position on-off switch. That prevented four megaton disaster. If the right two wires had touched, the bomb would have detonated. Period.
Eric Schlosser, Author, Command and Control: The Goldsboro accident occurred at a time when the number of nuclear weapons accidents was increasing.
March 14, 1961 Yuba City, California, Two nuclear weapons…ground impact…
Bob Peurifoy, Director of Weapon Development, Sandia: I read through all of the known accident reports and it scared the hell out of me.
Bill Stevens, Head of Nuclear Safety, Sandia: We were shocked when we realized, all these years we’ve been thinking along this nice neat line. That’s not reality.
Eric Schlosser, Author, Command and Control: There had been all these statistical assurances that weapons wouldn’t detonate in an accident, and then there was a realization that the weapons were nowhere near as safe as everyone had assumed.
Bill Stevens, Head of Nuclear Safety, Sandia: We knew that fire for example could set off these electro-explosive devices inside the warhead in a random way.
Eric Schlosser, Author, Command and Control: During a fire, the solder might melt on a circuit board. It created all kinds of new electrical pathways that could completely circumvent a safety device.
Bob Peurifoy, Director of Weapon Development, Sandia: Of the 20 or 25 thousand weapons that we had in the stockpile I could not in good conscience swear that they were adequately safe.
Eric Schlosser, Author, Command and Control: What they were saying is thousands of weapons in the American nuclear arsenal were vulnerable during an accident. Including the most powerful warhead on an American missile, the warhead on top of the Titan II.
Missile complex 374-7, 6:35pm
Rodney Holder, Missile Combat Crew: I was sitting down in the kitchen eating a sandwich when the Claxton went off. So I didn’t think too much of it, I mean it went off it's like ok they’re just doing their procedures. But about ten seconds later, we got another Claxton. I got up and I walked about halfway down the stairs. And I looked down and I can see the commander’s console. The commander’s console has lots of red lights flashing, and so I know something’s wrong.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: Captain Mazzaro is crew commander. The first thing that Mazarro heard and that the other team members heard are the words “uh-oh.” Mazzaro said, “What do you mean uh-oh? What’s going on?” They said there’s smoke in the bottom of the launch duct. Commander’s trying to clear up, “What do you mean smoke in the bottom of the launch duct, do you see a fire?”
Dave Powell, PTS Team: The fuel vapors in the silo are just climbing and climbing and climbing. So I radioed back that we had a cloud. A milky white cloud. I wasn’t going to say fuel over the radio. The reason I didn’t want to say the word fuel over the radio was because uh, in case the commander, the missile commander was listening, I didn’t want him to freak out.
Jeffrey Plumb, PTS Team: I think David was just scared to say anything about really what was happening. Only being 21 years old. I guess it’d almost be like, you know, you doing something wrong as a kid and you gotta tell your parents about it, you know? You know how you kind of just stand there and you don’t want to say what you just did.
Dave Powell, PTS Team: I grabbed Plumb and we walked back up the cableway. I immediately started looking at the fuel level reader. When it hits that explosive level any spark can set off the fuel.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: You could run through each of the tanks at each stage and see what the pressure was, and we saw that the pressure was dropping. It was dropping fast. And then all of a sudden sprays came on in the launch duct, we thought well there must be a fire, it doesn’t make any sense, nothing made any sense. And I jumped into my checklist. We did everything according to checklists, you know we ran the oxidizer checklists, we ran the fuel checklists, you know you stay in the checklist it’ll take care of you.
Rodney Holder, Missile Combat Crew: About that time the maintenance team that had been out working had gotten back, and they’re standing over in the short cableway and the maintenance team chief went over and met them and they started talking. At that point I said, “okay guys, what happened?” And they came in and then they explained to the crew at that point exactly what happened.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: And that’s when we finally got him to admit that he had done something. That he had dropped it, and it was a hole, and he saw vapors coming out, it was more than “uh oh”. And that was the first time we knew, it was a good half hour into it. By then it was basically out of control.
White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, 1978
Harold Brown, Secretary of Defense: When I became secretary of defense we had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. The numbers were a big problem because it only takes a few or one getting out of hand to cause a catastrophic problem. And we worried about that, we probably didn’t worry about it enough. Titan II missiles by 1980 were both old and much more prone to accidents.
Harold Brown, Secretary of Defense: Why was it still in the arsenal? In part because it was part of a negotiating strategy. We anticipated trading them off against Soviet heavy missiles in strategic arms negotiations.
Eric Schlosser, Author, Command and Control: It was a bargaining chip, something that we could give up in order to persuade the Soviets to get rid of a class of their missiles.
Harold Brown, Secretary of Defense: So that was why we still had it, and it was therefore available for an accident.
ARC (News): Nearly 14,000 gallons of poisonous liquid fuel poured out killing two persons and injuring more than 20 others.
ARC (News): This would be missile leak number 10 so far in Arkansas.
ARC (News): The Titan II is potentially an awesome weapon of war, whose only victims so far have been Americans.
Air Force Command Center, Little Rock, 7:00 PM
Col. John Moser, Commander, 308th Strategic Missile Wing: September 18th 1980, I got a call from the command post that we had a serious problem.. I was the new guy. I had no previous experience in Titan, I had no training in Titan, I had about three months under my belt before the accident occurred on the night of September 18th. I got to the command center, started to figure out what was going on. And then I activated the missile potential hazard team.
Eric Schlosser, Author, Command and Control: The missile potential hazard team gathered together some of the top figures in the air force to deal with the accident. At Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, there was Colonel Ben Scallorn, the Air Force’s leading expert on the Titan II missile.
Col. Ben Scallorn Deputy Chief of Staff For Missiles, 8th Air Force: As we were dumping fuel the oxidizer expands and there’s a possibility that it can rupture a tank, and with a silo full of fuel and you rupture an oxidizer tank and the oxidizer hits the fuel, it’s gone.
Eric Schlosser, Author, Command and Control: In Denver there were executives from Martin Marietta who designed and built the Titan II missile. And in Omaha Nebraska, there was the underground headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, known as SAC. That night all the majoyr decisions would be made at SAC headquarters by General Lloyd Leavitt.
Col. John Moser, Commander, 308th Strategic Missile Wing: General Leavitt was a very dedicated pilot, a very courageous pilot in Korea and Vietnam, but he had no missile background at all that I’m aware of. As things progressed, we were trying to do everything we could. We knew what was gonna happen if we lost pressure in the fuel tank; of course, the missile was gonna collapse on top of itself. If the missile collapsed, the entire missile would blow up, but what would happen to the warhead was anybody’s guess. and so it became a seat of the pants operation as things unfolded and I used every resource we had that night to try to face the problem and solve the problem. One of the options was if the silo closure door was opened, there’s a possibility that the gas could have been vented. But, there was also a possibility, if the missile did explode while that door was open, it would throw the warhead out of the silo. We would not have known where it went. It could go almost anywhere.
Eric Schlosser, Author, Command and Control: Twenty-five years earlier, a weapon similar to the one on the Titan II was tested in the South Pacific. The explosion wound up being three times more powerful than they had estimated. And the test revealed that the radioactive fallout from a hydrogen bomb could be even more deadly than the blast itself. Back in Washington, they took a map of the fallout pattern from the Bravo Test and they superimposed it on a map of the United States. A similar weapon detonated over Washington DC could release enough radioactive fallout to kill everyone in Washington DC, everyone in Baltimore, everyone in Philadelphia, half the population of New York City, with casualties and fatalities as far north as Boston.
Rodney Holder, Missile Combat Crew: The fuel tank readings started going negative and at that point I felt that it was potentially going to collapse. And although there are safety measures within the warhead, in the back of my mind, you always wonder. I don’t think anybody truly knew what was going to happen with the warhead.
Jeffrey Plumb, PTS Team: As they were talking about these tank pressures and all these different things, I’m getting more and more anxious and more and more anxious thinking, we need to get out of here. We need, we need to get the hell out of this complex because this thing’s going to blow up.
Col. John Moser, Commander, 308th Strategic Missile Wing: Some of the crewmembers were eager to make an exit, so with that in mind, we started discussing should we evacuate the people in the launch control center, or leave them in there. The reason to get them out of the silo was we had no idea what was going to happen to the launch control center if the missile exploded.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: I still thought we should be there. We needed to be there. If we evacuated that launch control center, we would be giving up any ability to control any of the equipment, we would be giving up the capacity to try any of the ideas that people were trying to come up with in order to save this system. Rodney and I told the crew commander that we wanted to stay behind. I couldn’t leave. Emotionally, I couldn’t go.
Rodney Holder, Missile Combat Crew: From our standpoint we could stay because neither one of us had children at that time. And not that we didn’t care about our lives, but you know it just seemed that it made sense to us that we should stay and let everybody else go.
State Democratic Convention
Skip Rutherford, Aide to Senator David Pryor: On the evening of September 18th, people were gathering in Hot Springs. Vice president Mondale was the keynote speaker. Senator Pryor and governor Clinton and others had already gone to Hot Springs, and I was scheduled to go over the next day. That night we had invited a friend over for dinner, and the phone rang and it was this airman who worked on the Titan missiles. But when I got off the phone from this airman, I looked around and people started asking me, saying “what's happening?” And I said, “a Titan Missile is going to explode.” And the question was well what does that mean? What it means is if that nuclear warhead explodes we’re incinerated. I said “Little Rock’s gone, Little Rock is gone. We’re forty six miles from this site, we’re gone.” I walked into our living room and looked out the front window and it was still daylight savings time so it wasn’t totally dark and you could see children in the front yard or people walking out to their cars, carrying on their normal everyday lives, and I thought do I run out on the street and say we’ve got a potential nuclear explosion 46 miles from here? Do I grab my friends and neighbors and get in the car and start driving? What do you do?
Sen. David Pryor, (D) Arkansas: I was there in Hot Springs that night and the phone rang and it was Skip. And Skip says, we have a problem.
Skip Rutherford, Aide to Senator David Pryor: He said “what’s the air force saying?” I said “the air force is telling people it’s not happening, that’s what they’ve told the people on the site. They’re going to tell you that these things are under control. But I think you need to be prepared for an explosion.”
Sid King, Manager, KGFL Radio: As the general manager of the radio station in Clinton, we were doing quite a bit of local news and you realize in a small town that you needed to have a police scanner because everything comes off of it. And the person said we’ve got a chemical leak at the Titan II missile silo. We get there about the same time the sheriff is getting there, Gus Anglin. This is Gus Anglin, he was the sheriff of Van Buren County, very popular sheriff by the way. And so we decide to walk down the narrow road that goes down to the silo. And when you get down there there’s like this ten foot tall chain link fencing with barbed wire around the top of it. Out of nowhere, here comes two guys with M-16 rifles. Gus says “do I need to start evacuating?” “Oh no sir, no sir, we’ve got it under control I assure you.” So we went back to the edge of the road, which was just of highway 65.
ARC (TV Broadcaster): This is as close as the military will allow us to get…
Sid King, Manager, KGFL Radio: So here comes Channel 4, here comes Channel 11. Before you know it, we’ve got about 25 people out there. They ignored us. We’d yell at them as they came by, “hey, is everything under control?” You know, have you fixed it yet? And they’d just keep driving. They wouldn’t even acknowledge you existed.
Sam Hutto, Dairy Farmer: Sheriff Gus Anglin, he didn’t get the information he thought he needed from them to make really good decisions, and finally he just went to running everybody off when they were evacuating. He said you know “I don’t know how bad it’s gonna be or anything else, get out of here right now and then we’ll get you back in quick as we can.”
Sam Hutto, Dairy Farmer: They had roadblocks set up back 2 miles from it diverting traffic around the area. I had a problem that 9 months before that happened, I had synchronized a bunch of heifers, which means you give them a shot of Lutalyse and they all come into heat at the same time. You breed them all at the same time, which means they’re also all gonna calve at the same time. Well, their due date was that day. We would have lost the farm, everything we had, you know if them cows got sick and died. So, we were going back in.
Col. John Moser, Commander, 308th Strategic Missile Wing: We finally made the decision to evacuate the crew because when the missile explodes, if it does explode, you’re risking life of the four crew members on site. So we thought the best avenue was to take the crew out of the control center.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: Mike said we’re gonna have to evacuate. It was one of the hardest things I think anybody could do because you were responsible for a nuclear weapon that was capable of destroying an unbelievable amount of territory and an unbelievable number of people, and you were leaving it behind. Nobody left it before, nobody would leave a nuclear warhead. And the whole time I was leaving I kept thinking, I need to stay, I should have stayed. I look back on it now I still can’t believe we left it empty. We had all these classified checklists. Nobody had ever tried to put them in a safe before, they wouldn’t fit, so we left all of them in the safe with the door open.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: We thought we’re going to go out the regular way, we’ll open a door up.
Rodney Holder, Missile Combat Crew: As we started to open the blast door, we immediately saw vapor. Once we closed that door, that cut off our main escape route. We were instructed to evacuate through the emergency escape hatch, which we had never actually fully opened.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: It was just a metal tube with a ladder in it, buried a good 40 feet underground. There’s a light at the top, and it’s supposed to shine down into the escape route. And it didn’t come on, it wasn’t working. Nothing was working.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: It was a hell of a thing to climb up five stories in the dark with this mask on, and you couldn’t breathe, and it filled up with vapors and you couldn’t see anything. We knew there was very little wind that night, and all of the vapors that were being evacuated out of the launch duct were settling over the site.
James Sandaker, PTS Team: I was at home with my wife and kid, and I got a call from job control, and they said they had a problem out at 4-7.
Greg Devlin, PTS Team: They told everybody here, this is a very dangerous situation, we don’t know what’s going to happen, this is a purely voluntary mission only, and if you don’t want go you don’t have to go. The PTS group, it was like a brotherhood. There’s no question that we weren’t going to be the team that was going out there. Dave Livingston was one of the guys and he was sitting in the back seat and he said to me, somebody’s going to die out here tonight, I just feel it. And I said, Dave don’t say something like that man, don’t even say it. And he goes, no I got a bad vibe man, somebody’s going to die out here, man.
Rodney Holder, Missile Combat Crew: We know at this point that there’s a helicopter on the way and Jeff Kennedy was on there. He was one of the best, if not the best team chief in the wing.
Dave Powell, PTS Team: Jeff Kennedy was the kind of guy that, he would never ask you to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.
Voice of Sgt. Jeff Kennedy: When I got out on site, Powell came running up to me and said, “Jeff, I fucked up like you wouldn’t believe.” I know that I need to get the tank readings to find out how serious the leak is.
Dave Powell, PTS Team: Jeff thought, the longer we wait, the more dangerous it gets. What Jeff didn’t tell anybody was, we’re going to go down into that silo and look at those pressures. So, we run across the silo to the escape hatch. Kennedy goes into the tube first, I follow him in, and all of a sudden he looks up at me and he says, stay here. He violated the most sacred rule in SAC, which is the two man rule. Nobody goes to certain parts of the silo without being accompanied by another person. But he felt like that he could get in and out quicker if he went by himself.
Voice of Sgt. Jeff Kennedy: Stage 1 fuel was now at a negative imbalance. There’s 14,000 gallons of fuel that have leaked out of the tank. so now we have less than 30 pounds of pressure before stage 1 oxidizer blows.
Dave Powell, PTS Team: Kennedy shows the readings that he just got and says we still had time to save it, but we had to move. We had to move now.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: The commander was furious that he had violated the two man policy by going down there and didn’t even have a crew member with him, just on his own. He violated everything.
Voice of Sgt. Jeff Kennedy: Fifteen minutes later, SAC headquarters relieves us of all command decision making. Now here’s SAC headquarters that has never stepped foot on a complex, That just pissed me off.
Col. Ben Scallorn Deputy Chief of Staff For Missiles, 8th Air Force: Time was of the essence if we were going to accomplish anything. Every minute that passed by we were further, simply because we’re dumping more fuel, and everything is getting worse.
Rodney Holder, Missile Combat Crew: People started showing up from base. Communications, portable vapor detectors, they were bringing all kinds of maintenance equipment.
Sid King, Manager, KGFL Radio: You think all these experts must be coming in to work on this thing. Then I see this bus come in. And here are these about 10 guys, and they start putting on what looks like space outfits and you’re looking at these and you’re thinking I’m 24 years old and they’re all younger than me, and these guys are the experts that are going to go in there and fix this? All I saw were just young guys that were being thrown to the lions.
Greg Devlin, PTS Team: One of the hard things for us was it seemed like we were waiting, and waiting and waiting for some decision to be made at SAC as specifically what to do, so the time frame of like, man you know, whatever we’re going to do let’s do it.
Col. John Moser, Commander, 308th Strategic Missile Wing: The SAC command center finally decided that we had to know what the status was in the silo if we could get back in. What they considered the best alternative, was go back in and check pressures.
Greg Devlin, PTS Team: When we find out what the plan is, we have to break into a nuclear missile complex, which has never been done before in history.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: If we had stayed in the control center we could have opened every door they had to break their way in.
Rodney Holder, Missile Combat Crew: The plan was to go down and go through the blast doors, get into the control center. And depending on the fuel and oxidizer readings, they wanted to get to the missile itself. open up a valve, to vent that tank so it would stabilize and not collapse.
Voice of Sgt. Jeff Kennedy:: It’s absolute, total bullshit. You know I said “colonel, why don’t we just go down the escape hatch?” “Kennedy, this plan has come down, it’s the plan we’re going to go with, that’s it.”
Dave Powell, PTS Team: Jeff thought the plan was nuts. But on the other hand, you’re, this is what you do, you’re a PTS guy, this is the plan that came down and you suck it up and you do it.
Col. John Moser, Commander, 308th Strategic Missile Wing: We were directed to ask for volunteers to go back in. I personally wasn’t in favor of sending anybody else in, after all the time. It was the wee hours of the morning, this had been going on for many hours at this point, probably 8 hours. But I guess you go back and say as a good soldier, your boss says do this and you eventually do it. And we had enough brave souls to volunteer to go back in the silo.
Greg Devlin, PTS Team: Rex Hukle and I were the first guys to go in. They said, you only have 30 minutes of air. There is no crew down there, the crew is already evacuated, so they said you’re going to have to cut and break your way into this missile complex.
Col. Ben Scallorn Deputy Chief of Staff For Missiles, 8th Air Force: When they got to the exhaust duct they took a reading and the meter pegged out, which is 250 parts per million.
Rodney Holder, Missile Combat Crew: 250 parts per million is when the vapor is in such a high concentration it could start to melt the RFHCO suits. Almost anything could cause it to ignite.
Col. Ben Scallorn Deputy Chief of Staff For Missiles, 8th Air Force: General Leavitt directed them to press on. I knew it was the wrong thing to do. Whatever was going to happen was not going to be good.
Greg Devlin, PTS Team: We got to the portal door and used bolt cutters and a great big crowbar to pry open the main lock and then go down three levels of steps to get to your first 6000 pound blast lock door with great big hydraulic pins that lock it in place. we were getting close to the 30 minutes of air and then they said, you guys got it hooked up, come on back, we’re going to send Kennedy and Livingston in to replace you.
Col. John Moser, Commander, 308th Strategic Missile Wing: Those guys were brave. They knew what they were getting into when they went back in on the underground. What could happen to them.
Rodney Holder, Missile Combat Crew: I was sitting in a security police vehicle listening and hearing what’s going on. The next team went in, which was going to be Kennedy and Livingston.
ARC: AR to CC stand by…
Rodney Holder, Missile Combat Crew: They’re relaying the information that they’ve opened the blast door.
Voice of Sgt. Jeff Kennedy: When we went into the blast lock area, there’s 8 lights bright as hell. I’m less than ten feet away from it and I can’t even see it.
Rodney Holder, Missile Combat Crew: So they immediately evacuated, and started topside.
Voice of Sgt. Jeff Kennedy: I had got topside and now we get a command from the team chief to go down and turn on an exhaust fan. Livingston taps himself on the chest, and he went down.
Rodney Holder, Missile Combat Crew: After that, within seconds, I saw the explosion.
Col. John Moser, Commander, 308th Strategic Missile Wing: All of a sudden, I lost all communications. Everything you ever read or heard about a nuclear explosion, all communications were lost until things settled out and that’s the first thing I ever, that’s that’s the first thing that entered my mind. That we had a nuclear explosion out there, and we may have a shock wave coming into Little Rock Air Force Base and all the surrounding communities, and that that’s the first thing I thought about. And all the people would be dead out there on site of course and I just, it was unimaginable what was going through my mind. It was almost like you wanted to get down on your knees and pray to the higher power to protect everybody.
Sam Hutto, Dairy Farmer: About 3 o’clock in the morning, I decided, well might as well go milk. And just before I got to the roadblock, you drop off a hill on highway 65 there’s a spot that you can see the ground at the missile base. Just as I got to that spot, it blew. You felt it more than you saw it. I mean, I was a mile and three quarters, two miles away from it, and it almost shook my truck off the road.
Sid King, Manager, KGFL Radio: I was sitting on the hood of Gus’s sheriff’s car just kind of sitting there and had on slip on shoes and was kicking one off and on, then all of a sudden it was just Kawhoom!
Sid King, Manager, KGFL Radio: Everybody was running as hard as they could to get out of there because we may be living our last few minutes. I thought when I jumped in my car and drove as hard as I could that I was probably outrunning a nuclear blast you know. I thought, this Dodge Omni is going to outrun this thing.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: The sky just lit up. It really looked like the sun was coming up which is why our initial reaction was, the nuclear bomb went off, the nuclear warhead exploded.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: So much gravel and rocks were coming down it was smashing windshields and putting holes in trucks, I was literally trying to crawl underneath a truck and it started to move and I crawled out again real fast and somebody drove it off. The stuff stopped falling, but there was flames everywhere and you could hear this roar and you looked down there you could see this steam and fire coming out of the complex.
Greg Devlin, PTS Team: All I know is the first thing to hit me was wind, it was like Boom! Just like a concussion man, it was like Bang! And you’re blown backwards, you have no control over anything. As I was sliding on my back, burning going up the street, my left eye opened and I could see glowing steel blowing past me, and in my heart I said, it’s over, you’re not going to live through this. You know, I just hope it’s not painful. I got up and took off running, I got five steps away, and a chunk of concrete bigger than a school bus hits the ground right behind me, and it’s got steel rebar hanging out of it. As I’m running, I feel this whack hit my ankle and just shatters my ankle. The next step I took I just buckled and went down. That’s when I started to realize that my face and neck and back were all on fire.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: I was picking people up and carrying them up the road trying to get them away from the debris. All you heard was evacuate, evacuate, evacuate. Air Force Colonel said, “the other two are on the site, they have to be dead.” And we looked down at the site and said “I’m with you Colonel, they have to be dead.” I got into the last truck that was there with a bunch of hurt guys, and I said, let’s go.
ARC Radio (with subtitles): Roger the entire area has been evacuated.
Voice of Sgt. Jeff Kennedy: As soon as it blew, I remember being flipped ass over tea kettle. When I woke up, I was laying on my back, my legs were up against the complex fence. I was screaming and crying. There was nobody there. You only had yourself. You know, the pain I had to deal with was trivial to the fact that I wanted to live, I wanted to survive, I mean I thought of my kids, my wife. I said, I am not going to die in this complex. I went to stand up, and I fell right down, my leg was broken. I fell down four, five times, get back up. All the time that I’m walking I can hear Livingston, “oh my god help me, please, somebody help me.” Because of my leg being broken I determined that I could not get him. This is something that I fought with for eons. If Livingston had of known that I was there, would that have been enough of an adrenaline rush to know somebody’s got to get some help. Off the complex was a truck. I had to make it from one end of the complex to the other. When I get to the truck, and I radioed for help, the truck went dead.
James Sandaker, PTS Team: On my way back to the missile site I could hear Kennedy on the radio in the truck.
ARC (Kennedy): Help! Help me! Help me! Can anybody read me?
James Sandaker, PTS Team: And I headed down the road as fast as I could get that truck to go. I got part way there and two security policemen were in the road and they waved me down. And he told us to evacuate and not go down there. And I said, “screw you our friends are down there, we’re going.”
ARC (Kennedy): Please help me, where are you?
James Sandaker, PTS Team: When I got back to the missile site, I saw Kennedy. He was burnt and he had a hole in his leg the size of your fist. He was really hurt bad, and he told me to go find Livingston. We put our helmets on, and we went onto the site. It was like another world. Ordinance guys had told us that the warhead was full of plastic explosives that could be laying all over the ground, so somehow we were not supposed to step on them. There was giant chunks of concrete blasted all over that looked like the size of semi trucks. There’s a strange glow coming out of where the silo used to be. And when we got back to the truck, they had already found Livingston, and I was angry because they didn’t have an ambulance. I put him in the back of a pick up truck and we…I held him. He begged me not to tell his mother, like he had done something wrong.
Greg Devlin, PTS Team: When we arrived at the hospital, I was hyperventilating because the burn pain was so great. I had a nurse tell me, “if you don’t calm down, you’re going to pass out.” And I couldn’t calm down, I was on fire, I felt like I was on fire.
ARC: Take it easy Dev…
Dave Powell, PTS Team: I went to the hospital that Kennedy and, and Livingston went to. And we were there for a few hours, I think. And then the doctor comes out and informs us that David Livingston had passed away and that Kennedy was like hanging by a thread. You just keep replaying things in your head. What if I did this? What if I did that? The ifs and buts. You know, and you just keep replaying it.
Jeffrey Plumb, PTS Team: Dave Powell was a lot closer to David Livingston than most people knew. I remember looking over when I was at the funeral, and I remember Powell just weeping. He feels responsible for the death of David, he really does, he felt responsible for the death of his friend.
Voice of Sgt. Jeff Kennedy: As soon as I found out Livingston died, I, I wanted nothing more to do with the Air Force. We were in the hospital two days before, before a single, solitary Air Force personnel were out at that hospital.
Greg Devlin, PTS Team: They came in every 8 hours on my face, neck, and back, and they used a scrub pad, it was like a brillow pad and they scrubbed all the skin, the dead skin, off so that the new skin would grow back. Oh the scrubbing was immensely painful. The Air Force was in a really big hurry to get me back to the base so that no one could get to us, there could be no interviews and you would not be speaking to the press.
Skip Rutherford Aide to Senator David Pryor: Phone rang about 3:30 with a call from one of the airman that said, “it just blew.” The first thing I did was look around and say, I’m alive, we’re alive, my family’s alive, neighborhood’s alive. And my response was, where’s the warhead? And the person said, we don’t know.
Sid King, Manager, KGFL Radio: When you were trying to talk to the Air Force to find out, is there a nuclear warhead? Was one involved? Did you find it? Was it, you know, what condition was it in? Had it burst open? Was there uranium spread all over the, the area? They would not admit that there was even a nuclear warhead.
Col. John Moser, Commander, 308th Strategic Missile Wing: We could not tell the local populace or any of the political or law enforcement people that we had a warhead on the missile. That was, we could not confirm nor deny that we had a nuclear weapon onsite, and that was SAC and national policy at that time.
Col. John Moser, Commander, 308th Strategic Missile Wing: My personal feeling was that it was a ridiculous policy, but nevertheless we had to live with it.
ARC (news reporter): Sherriff, has the Air Force told you very much?
ARC (Anglin): No, haven’t told me a darned thing.
ARC (news reporter): Does that make you mad?
ARC (Anglin): Yes it does.
Sid King, Manager, KGFL Radio: So they wouldn’t tell us anything, but one of the local merchants in town found the air force frequencies.
ARC (Air Force Radio): Could you give us a status on those EOD and disaster preparedness people? Still walking up the hill.
Sid King, Manager, KGFL Radio: They know that you’re listening to them. And they said, “be real evasive about what you talk about.” They keep on talking about “we cannot find it, we cannot find the unit, and that’s how we knew they were trying to figure out what happened to this nuclear warhead? Where did it go?
ARC (Air Force Radio): Roger on scene commander: the team went to the unit, now they’re on their way out to give a full report. Team Commander Command Post: What unit are you talking about sir? Let’s not talk about that.
ARC (Air Force Radio): Laying in a ditch, besides, it’s not even up close. It blew it out and it’s laying in the ditch, it’s all exposed.
Col. John Moser, Commander, 308th Strategic Missile Wing: I went out there the next day. Somebody said, “there it is.” And it was in the ditch in a somewhat, as I recall, somewhat buried. And then someone called the nuclear people at Sandia to assess whether or not we had a hazardous situation.
Bob Peurifoy, Director Of Weapon Development, Sandia: The phone rang. They said, “we had a problem.” I knew I had to get to Damascus. We helicoptered into the silo. I was apprehensive. I knew that the warhead could have been armed. Ready to fire.
Robert Kenner, Filmmaker (off Camera): Was there a chance that that bomb could have detonated?
Bob Peurifoy, Director of Weapon Development, Sandia: Yes. It was only after we had landed I learned that because of the absence of any power source, the risk of a nuclear detonation was approximately zero.
ARC (Brokow): The governor of the state of Arkansas is Bill Clinton, as you can see he’s standing by in Little Rock to talk with us about the situation. Do you think that the people of Arkansas who lived around the Titan II missile site, Governor, were in danger at the time of the explosion?
ARC (Clinton): Well Tom, of course as regards to nuclear explosion all we can do is to trust the experts there, they say there was never a danger of a nuclear explosion.
ARC (Reporter Interviewing Pryor): As far as the community itself is concerned and the danger from possible radioactive leak, if the warhead itself has been, if there is a warhead and if it has been damaged, have you heard anything from Washington confirming whether there is one there or not?
ARC (Pryor): I have not, I’ve heard uh rumors, I won’t go into those right now.
Sen. David Pryor, (D) Arkansas: I remember that Vice President Mondale, he was trying to find out, what, did this have a real warhead? Did this missile, was it armed with a nuclear warhead?
Col. John Moser, Commander, 308th Strategic Missile Wing: You know when my, Vice Commander Colonel Ryan went to Hot Springs. Vice President Mondale asked that question, whether a nuclear weapon was involved in, of course, Colonel Ryan said “I can’t confirm or deny,” and that’s to the Vice President. That’s when he got on the phone with Secretary Brown.
Harold Brown, Secretary of Defense: The first thing I wanted to know was whether there had been any scattering of nuclear material, or still worse, a nuclear explosion, and when I heard that there had not been, my level of attention went way down. Accidents were not unusual in the defense department there was at least, there must have been several every day.
Eric Schlosser, Author, Command and Control: According to the Department of Defense, there have been 32 broken arrows, that is serious nuclear weapons accidents that could have endangered the public. But a few years ago, the Department of Energy released a declassified document that said there had been more than a thousand accidents and incidents involving our nuclear weapons. Not only had the public not been told about these hundreds and hundreds of accidents, but even the man responsible for the safety of our nuclear weapons wasn’t being told about accidents involving those weapons.
Bob Peurifoy, Director of Weapon Development, Sandia: When I was the director of weapon development I was unaware of a large number of accidents and incidents because I had no access to the information.
Col. John Moser, Commander, 308th Strategic Missile Wing: I was surprised when I read about the number of nuclear accidents that we had in the Air Force. I knew about some of those, but I didn’t know there were so many.
Eric Schlosser, Author, Command and Control: Again and again in looking at these documents, you find an effort to blame the person who dropped the wrench, who used the wrong tool at a minuteman site, blew the warhead off the missile, who brought the seat cushions onto the plane that caught on fire and crashed the plane. There’s this instinct to blame the operator, to blame the little guy. If the system worked properly, somebody dropping a tool couldn’t send a nuclear warhead into a field.
ARC (News): No special precautions have been ordered at other Titan missile bases around the country because of that explosion in Arkansas.
ARC (News): In Arkansas the system itself apparently did not fail. A mechanic’s wrench fell from a ledge and struck the missile, puncturing a fuel tank. That is classified as human error.
ARC (News): The air force says the Titan is not to blame, that it was human error that caused the accident.
ARC (Hans Mark): The accident that I’ve described here is unrelated to the state or the age of this system.
Dave Powell, PTS Team: I was served with an article 15 for dereliction of duty because I chose to use the ratchet instead of the torque wrench. Sgt Kennedy got a letter of reprimand for violating the two man rule.
ARC (Kennedy): I gave them my all, and what did I get from them. A letter of reprimand. A letter of reprimand.
James Sandaker, PTS Team: After the accident I thought that Kennedy and Devlin and the others that were hurt would be treated like heroes because they were. And they were treated like crap.
ARC (News): Some of the officials here at the air base apparently have also changed their attitude towards some of the men who risked their lives that morning.
Greg Devlin, PTS Team: Channel 4 news called and said, you want to tell us about how well the Air Force is treating you since the missile explosion, and I said, yeah I’ll tell them.
ARC (Devlin): I worked 3 and a half years, did a good job for 3 and a half years and then I wound up hurt from this explosion, and uh, and then all of a sudden they don’t want you anymore. You know, I don’t know if I’m going to be railroaded out, or you know I don’t know where I stand really.
Greg Devlin, PTS Team: Oh man, were they mad. I think every brass on base was mad at me. When I wore my military uniform with my boots on I, I almost couldn’t walk. I couldn’t even move the boot because my ankle was shattered, there’s no Achilles tendon so I just went in and said, Colonel would it be possible for me to wear a gym shoe on my left foot. He looked at me and he said, Devlin, I wouldn’t authorize a fucking thing for you. I planned on staying in the Air Force for a career. Within only a few months, I knew I couldn’t stay in the Air Force.
Jeffrey Plumb, PTS Team: I kind of lost it, um, after that accident. I just had a melt down. I went into, I went into the TV room where we all played cards and one evening and there was beer bottles all over the place and I just started throwing a bunch of beer bottles all over the place and took my frustrations out on that. The base commander, he gave me an honorable discharge which I was thankful for but that was not my goal was to leave the military at that time.
Col. John Moser, Commander, 308th Strategic Missile Wing: There was an old motto that went around that to err was human, to forgive wasn’t SAC policy.
ARC (Moser): We have a checklist in our command post that that calls for us to notify the OES. Now I’m not saying it broke down there, don’t, don’t misconstrue what I’m saying. What I’m saying is from there on down there was no plan. This is the test bed, 4-7 was the test bed and we never, nothing like this has ever happened before.
Col. John Moser, Commander, 308th Strategic Missile Wing: Even though you know I‘d just had three months there I was in charge and a senior guy is responsible for the whole operation. I expected I was going to lose my job, let’s put it that way, after that happened. I thought that was, that would be the next step and that happened on Thanksgiving. My regret was that I took orders from my boss, I clicked my heels like a good soldier and tried to execute those orders as best I could. And as a result of that, we lost life.
Dave Powell, PTS Team: I think about Livingston often. What it’d be like to still have him around and call him up on the phone. Jeff Kennedy passed away a couple of years ago. I have no doubt that Jeff died from being involved in Damascus, no doubt in my mind. I hear a song on the radio, I’ll see something on TV, and bam, there it is, it’s back, you know. It’s very hard to talk about, even today. I uh tried to live as normal a life as I can, and uh, and uh, but there isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think about it. 30 whatever, 35 years whatever it’s been. Every day.
May 5, 1987
ARC (news): It went like clockwork, 6500 pounds of explosives set to go at high noon.
Eric Schlosser, Author, Command and Control: Seven years after the Damascus accident, the last Titan II was deactivated.
Damascus, Arkansas, Site 374-7
Sam Hutto, Dairy Farmer: If you didn’t know they were there you wouldn’t know what it was now. It just looks like a small hill.
James Sandaker, PTS Team: I think nowadays people don’t realize that we still have 7000 nuclear weapons. They think that’s all in the past and that they’re not there anymore and the reality is they’re all over the place.
Harold Brown, Secretary of Defense: Nuclear accidents continue to the present day, although there have not been nearly as many occasions of things being dropped or blown out of silos. In part, that’s because there are fewer of them. On the other hand, the degree of oversight and attention has, if anything, gotten worse, because people don’t worry about nuclear war as much.
Eric Schlosser, Author, Command and Control: Since the beginning of the atomic age the United States has built about 70,000 nuclear weapons. None of them have ever detonated by accident. That’s due to the skills of our weapons designers, whose safety recommendations were finally adopted and the bravery of our military personnel. But it’s also due to luck. Pure luck. And the problem with luck is eventually it runs out. Nuclear weapons are machines. And every machine ever invented eventually goes wrong.
Allan Childers, Missile Combat Crew: It doesn’t matter how much you plan, it doesn’t matter how many checklists you have, somebody’s got a ringer somewhere they’re going to throw out there at you.
Bob Peurifoy, Director of Weapon Development, Sandia: Nuclear weapons will always have a chance of an accidental detonation. It will happen. It may be tomorrow, or it may be a million years from now, but it will happen.