1980 Damascus Titan missile explosion
The Damascus Titan missile explosion (also called the Damascus accident) was a 1980 U.S. Broken Arrow incident involving a Titan II Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). The incident occurred on September 18–19, 1980, at Missile Complex 374-7 in rural Arkansas when a U.S. Air Force LGM-25C Titan II ICBM loaded with a 9 megaton W-53 Nuclear Warhead had a liquid fuel explosion inside its silo. Launch Complex 374-7 was located in Bradley Township, Van Buren County farmland just 3.3 miles (5.3 km) NNE of Damascus, and approximately fifty miles (80 km) north of Little Rock. (Coordinates: .)
The incident began with a fuel leak at 6:30 p.m. on September 18, and culminated with the explosion at around 3:00 a.m. on September 19.
The Strategic Air Command facility of Little Rock Air Force Base was one of eighteen silos in the command of the 308th Strategic Missile Wing (308th SMW), specifically one of the nine silos within its 374th Strategic Missile Squadron (374th SMS), at the time of the explosion.
Leadup to the incident
At around 6:30 p.m. CDT on Thursday, September 18, 1980, two airmen from a Propellant Transfer System (PTS) team were checking the pressure on the oxidizer tank of a USAF Titan II missile at Little Rock AFB's Launch Complex 374-7. Due to time constraints when going into the silo, a ratchet – 3 ft (0.9 m) long weighing 25 lb (11 kg) – was taken instead of the newly mandated torque wrench. The 8 lb (3.6 kg) socket for the oxidizer tank fell off the ratchet and dropped approximately 80 feet (24 m) before bouncing off a thrust mount and piercing the missile's skin over the first-stage fuel tank, causing it to leak a cloud of its aerozine 50 fuel.
Aerozine 50 is hypergolic with the Titan II's oxidizer, dinitrogen tetroxide; i.e., they spontaneously ignite upon contact with each other. The nitrogen tetroxide is kept in a second tank in the rocket's first-stage, directly above the fuel tank and below the second-stage and its 9-megaton W-53 nuclear warhead.
Eventually, the missile combat crew and the PTS team evacuated the launch control center, while military and civilian response teams arrived to tackle the hazardous situation. There was concern for the possible collapse of the now empty first-stage fuel tank, which could cause the rest of the 8-story missile to fall and rupture, allowing the oxidizer to contact the fuel already in the silo.
Early in the morning of Friday, September 19, a two-man PTS investigation team consisting of Senior Airman David Lee Livingston and Sergeant Jeff K. Kennedy entered the silo. Because their vapor detectors indicated an explosive atmosphere, the two were ordered to evacuate. The team was then ordered to reenter the silo to turn on an exhaust fan. Livingston reentered the silo to carry out the order and shortly thereafter, at about 3:00 a.m., the hypergolic fuel exploded – likely due to arcing in the exhaust fan. The initial explosion catapulted the 740-ton silo door away from the silo and ejected the second stage and warhead. Once clear of the silo, the second stage exploded. The W53 warhead landed about 100 feet (30 m) from the launch complex's entry gate; its safety features prevented any loss of radioactive material or nuclear detonation.
After the explosion
Livingston died at the hospital, and 21 others in the immediate vicinity of the blast sustained various injuries; Kennedy struggled with respiratory issues from inhaling oxidizer but survived. Livingston was posthumously promoted to Staff Sergeant (E-5). The entire missile launch complex was destroyed.
The launch complex was never repaired. Pieces of debris were taken away from the 400 acres (1.6 km2) surrounding the facility, and the site was buried under a mound of gravel, soil, and small concrete debris. The land is now under private ownership. The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on February 18, 2000.
|After Words interview with Schlosser on Command and Control, September 27, 2013, C-SPAN|
In September 2013, Eric Schlosser published a book titled Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. It focused on the explosion, as well as other Broken Arrow incidents during the Cold War. A documentary film titled Command and Control from director Robert Kenner, based on Schlosser's book, was released on January 10, 2017. The film was broadcast by PBS as part of its American Experience series.
- List of military nuclear accidents
- National Register of Historic Places listings in Van Buren County, Arkansas
- Schlosser, Eric (2013). Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Penguin Press. pp. Title. ISBN 978-1594202278.
- Christ, Mark K.; Arkansas Historic Preservation Program (2017-01-20). "Titan II Missile Explosion (1980) – Encyclopedia of Arkansas". www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net. Archived from the original on 2018-01-21. Retrieved 2018-01-20.
- "Missile silo blast probed". Chicago Tribune. wire services. September 20, 1980. p. 1, sec. 1.
- "Missile silo blast kills 1, hurts 21; no radiation leak". St. Petersburg Times. (Florida). AP, UPI. September 20, 1980. p. 1–A.
- Schlosser, Eric (2013). Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Penguin Press. ISBN 978-1-59420-227-8.
- "Command and Control – American Experience – WGBH – PBS". www.pbs.org. Retrieved 18 May 2017.
- "'What warhead?' Air Force aides ask". Chicago Tribune. wire services. September 21, 1980. p. 3, sec. 1.
- "Air Force truck removes damaged warhead". Eugene Register-Guard. (Oregon). UPI. September 22, 1980. p. 1A.
- "Titan warhead flown to nuclear arms plant". Lewiston Morning Tribune. (Idaho). Associated Press. September 24, 1980. p. 6A.
- Schlosser, Eric (2013). Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Penguin Press. p. 484. ISBN 978-1-59420-227-8.
- "Disaster at Silo 7". 27 November 1988. Retrieved 18 May 2017 – via IMDb.
- "Season 4, Episode 4 Nuke Kids on the Block". 16 October 2017. Retrieved 16 October 2017 – via TVGuide.com.
- Walter Russell Mead (2013-09-12). "Atomic Gaffes: Command and Control by Eric Schlosser". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-09-18.
- McKinley, James (2012-10-05). "Fast Food Nation Author Will Return With Book on Nuclear Weapons". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-10-06.
- O'Hehir, Andrew (14 September 2016). "The night we almost lost Arkansas — a 1980 nuclear Armageddon that almost was". Salon. Retrieved 2020-11-18.
On a September night 36 years ago, we nearly lost Arkansas. Some people may regard that as a mixed blessing, even now — Bill Clinton and his wife, then the governor and first lady of that state, were less than 50 miles away in Little Rock, at the Arkansas Democratic Convention. If the Titan 2 intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, that exploded inside its silo in Damascus, Arkansas, had detonated its nuclear warhead, both the Clintons and Vice President Walter Mondale (also attending the convention) would have been dead within minutes.