HARROWING: One switch stopped nuclear weapon from exploding over North Carolina
Terrifying Cold War incident in 1961 finally comes to light
One of the most harrowing incidents of the Cold War involved an American nuclear weapon - 260 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima, almost being detonated above North Carolina in 1961. Finally brought to light by a journalist using the Freedom of Information Act, the story adds credence to the buildup of such weapons as little more than "nuclear suicide" - literally.
Both bombs carried a payload of four megatons, which is the equivalent of four million tons of TNT explosive.
Obtained by the investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, the document gives the first conclusive evidence that the U.S. was narrowly spared a disaster of monumental proportions when two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were accidentally dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina on 23 January 1961.
It all began when a B-52 bomber encountered difficulty, having embarked from Seymour Johnson Air Force base in Goldsboro for a routine flight along the East Coast. As it went into a tailspin, the hydrogen bombs it was carrying became separated. One fell into a field near Faro, North Carolina, its parachute draped in the branches of a tree; the other plummeted into a meadow off Big Daddy's Road.
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.
Both bombs carried a payload of four megatons, which is the equivalent of four million tons of TNT explosive. Had the device detonated, fallout could have been deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and as far north as New York City. The incident would have killed untold Americans.
The U.S. government has publicly denied that its nuclear arsenal has ever put Americans' lives in jeopardy through safety flaws. However, 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."
Eight years after the accident, Parker F. Jones found that the bombs that dropped over North Carolina, just three days after President 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.
The secret report was entitled "Goldsboro Revisited or: How I learned to Mistrust the H-Bomb," referencing Stanley Kubrick's 1964 satirical film about nuclear holocaust, "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."
Using freedom of information, Schlosser discovered that at least 700 "significant" accidents and incidents involving 1,250 nuclear weapons were recorded between 1950 and 1968 alone.
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