Just over a decade ago when I was taking a journalism class in college, some classmates and I ended up researching an incident that occurred in a small rural town in North Carolina in 1961. The website we produced, although hardly the first or only coverage of it, actually ended up becoming one of the more widely read sources on the subject.
The incident occurred just a few days after John F. Kennedy was sworn into office, when a B-52 bomber on a flight from Seymour Johnson Air Force base in Goldsboro, North Carolina ran into trouble. I'll quote directly from the site since one of the students I worked with did such a great job with the writing:
On Tuesday, 24 January 1961, at about 12:30 a.m., two hydrogen bombs fell to earth near the tiny farming village of Faro, NC.
Obviously, neither bomb yielded its awful potential, or the world would today be mourning an infamous catastrophe. The two model MARK 39 devices came down when the B-52 bomber in which they were riding suffered structural failure and disintegrated in mid-air 12 miles north of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, NC. The plane exploded as it fell. Five crewmen parachuted to earth safely. Three died -- two who went down with the doomed bomber, and one who was found two miles from the crash site hanging by his parachute in a tree, his neck broken. The H-bombs jettisoned as the plane descended, one bomb parachuting to earth intact, the other striking a farmer's field at high speed -- "probably mach 1" (about 760 miles per hour) speculates one retired Air Force Colonel.
Safety mechanisms designed to prevent unintended or unauthorized detonation served their function, and a historic nuclear catastrophe was averted. But published sources disagree on how close the people of Wayne County came to suffering fiery annihilation. There is also disagreement in print on the potential yield of the weapons.
An on-going environmental concern centers on the portion or portions of one bomb still buried, sunk in a boggy farm field. Quicksand-like conditions made deep excavation impossible where the free-falling bomb came down, and that bomb was never recovered in full. The state of North Carolina still conducts periodic radiation testing on local ground water.
This little-known brush with nuclear disaster has attracted on and off interest over the years. But what was not known until yesterday was exactly how close to a real disaster it was. Daniel Ellsberg, who we interviewed as part of the project, has long claimed (initially in a Mother Jones interview in 1981) that according to classified documents that he had viewed, most of the safety mechanisms had failed and "a single switch" was the only thing preventing detonation.
Now, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, we know that Ellsberg was right:
Though there has been persistent speculation about how narrow the Goldsboro escape was, the US government has repeatedly publicly denied that its nuclear arsenal has ever put Americans' lives in jeopardy through safety flaws. But in the newly-published document, a senior engineer in the Sandia national laboratories responsible for the mechanical safety of nuclear weapons concludes that "one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe".Just how bad would this have been? According to nuclear physicist Dietrich Schroeer, the blast from a ground-level detonation of this kind would have produced a crater a third of a mile wide and leveled buildings within a five mile radius, while the heat would have created fires within a nine mile radius. Guardian reporter Ed Pilkington claims that, depending on the weather, "lethal fallout could have been deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and as far north as New York city" potentially "putting millions of lives at risk."
Writing eight years after the accident, Parker F Jones found that the bombs that dropped over North Carolina, just three days after John F Kennedy made his inaugural address as president, were inadequate in their safety controls and that the final switch that prevented disaster could easily have been shorted by an electrical jolt, leading to a nuclear burst. "It would have been bad news – in spades," he wrote.
Jones found that of the four safety mechanisms in the Faro bomb, designed to prevent unintended detonation, three failed to operate properly. When the bomb hit the ground, a firing signal was sent to the nuclear core of the device, and it was only that final, highly vulnerable switch that averted calamity. "The MK 39 Mod 2 bomb did not possess adequate safety for the airborne alert role in the B-52," Jones concludes.
The Guardian has published the declassified document here. A reminder maybe that despite the faith most Americans put in the government and the military when it comes to national security issues, they're as capable of making mistakes as anyone else. In this case, a history-altering mistake that was prevented by a single switch.