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Nuclear bomb nearly detonated after falling on North Carolina, declassified report says

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Dan Lamothe and Walter Russell Mead

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Just one switch away from nuclear disaster

Recently declassified reports reveal details behind the Goldsboro accident of 1961, in which the US very narrowly avoided nuclear catastrophe.

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There are few things in this world that can change the course of history faster than a nuclear bomb exploding. The devastation is immediate and lasts for years.

That makes the latest details to emerge about a January 24, 1961, incident involving two nuclear bombs all the more jarring.

A B-52 bomber broke up in the sky over North Carolina, and one of the two bombs on board was in the “armed” setting by the time it hit the ground near Goldsboro, North Carolina, according to a newly declassified report published on Monday by the National Security Archive.

A nuclear explosion at the Nevada Test Site in 1953. A nuclear bomb dropped on North Carolina out of a B-52 on January 24, 1961 and luckily did not explode on impact.

A nuclear explosion at the Nevada Test Site in 1953. A nuclear bomb dropped on North Carolina out of a B-52 on January 24, 1961 and luckily did not explode on impact. Photo: US National Nuclear Security Administration

If the switch had not been damaged by the impact of the crash, the weapon could have detonated, the report said.

A South Carolina doctor treated a family for injuries sustained when a sudden, inexplicable explosion tore through their backyard. The injuries were not serious, and after spending the night at the doctor’s house they returned home to discover that the object in the 15-metre crater left behind their house was an atomic bomb that had fallen from the passing B-52.  

The so-called “Goldsboro incident” received widespread attention in September last year, when details about the incident were published in a new book, Command and Control, by Eric Schlosser. And it sounds just as ominous as described on Monday by Bill Burr of the National Security Archives.

The B-52 bomber ... Three US Air Force personnel died after a B-52 broke up over North Carolina on January 24, 1961. One of two nuclear bombs dropped from the aircraft and landed in a backyard.

The B-52 bomber ... Three US Air Force personnel died after a B-52 broke up over North Carolina on January 24, 1961. One of two nuclear bombs dropped from the aircraft and landed in a backyard.

“The report implied that because Weapon 2 landed in a free-fall, without the parachute operating, the timer did not initiate the bomb’s high voltage battery (“trajectory arming”), a step in the arming sequence,” Burr wrote. “For Weapon 2, the Arm/Safe switch was in the “safe” position, yet it was virtually armed because the impact shock had rotated the indicator drum to the “armed” position. But the shock also damaged the switch contacts, which had to be intact for the weapon to detonate.”

Burr concluded:

“Perhaps this is what Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara had in mind, a few years later, when he observed that, ‘by the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.’”

Three US Air Force personnel in the B-52 died after the plane broke up that day. They were Sergeant Francis Roger Barnish, Major Eugene Holcombe Richards and Major Eugene Shelton.

That incident, which led to an anti-­nuclear movement in Britain, where the plane was bound, is one of many stories Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation, tells in Command and Control.

During the cold war, nuclear bombs fell out of the sky, burned up in plane ­crashes and were lost at sea. In the incident Schlosser describes in greatest detail, “the Damascus accident” of September 18, 1980, the warhead from a Titan II missile was ejected after a series of mishaps that began when a repairman dropped a socket wrench and pierced a fuel tank.

Tactical nuclear weapons scattered across Europe had minimal security; misplaced tools and failed repairs triggered serious accidents; inadequate safety procedures and poor oversight led to dozens of close brushes with nuclear explosions.

People have died in these accidents, sometimes as a result of their own carelessness or bad luck, but often while doing their best to protect the rest of us from an accidental nuclear blast.

The Washington Post, The New York Times

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