Damascus, AR Missile Silo Explosion, Sep 1980
ONE DEAD FROM SILO BLAST.
Damascus, Ark. (AP) -- The Air Force today would neither confirm nor deny reports that a nuclear warhead was blown out of the underground site in an explosion at a Tital II missile site that killed an Air Force sergeant and injured 21 other maintenance workers.
But 1,400 people evacuated from their homes in this rural area about 50 miles north of Little Rock were allowed to return to their homes late Friday after officials said no radioactivity was detected in the area.
Pentagon sources on Friday told The Associated Press there was a nuclear weapon atop the missile, which is designed to destroy a city more than 6,000 miles away.
Several newspapers and at least two television networks today quoted sources as saying the warhead was thrown from the silo in the pre-dawn explosion Thursday but was found intact a short distance away.
The Omaha World-Herald quoted sources who said the 103-foot missile was destroyed and that some damage was done to the warhead, but there were no radiation leaks.
The Arkansas Gazette said the silo housed a 10-megaton warhead, "the most powerful in the United States arsenal," that was thrown from the silo but not damaged.
Similar reports appeared in the Washington Post, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and the New York Daily News and were broadcast on NBC and ABC.
An Air Force spokesman this morning said he could neither confirm nor deny the reports, the customary response to questions about accidents involving nuclear weapons.
Strategic Air Command officials were continuing an investigation of the accident and the extent of the damage today. Both stages of the 165-ton missile were heavily damaged, the Air Force said.
But Air Force Secretary Hans Mark stressed,
"There is absolutely no evidence of any radioactive
material in the area. I can tell you that with absolute assurance."
The blast at about 3 a.m. near this central Arkansas community shattered the silo's 750-ton
steel and concrete lid, spewing table-size chunks of twisted steel and concrete into the air and injuring a total of 22 airmen, two seriously. A 60-man Air Force emergency response team was above ground near the silo at the time.
One injured man, SGT. DAVID LIVINGSTON, 21, of Heath, Ohio, died Friday after he "breathed a toxic solution of some kind -- that was the fatal blow," according to hospital spokesman John Pounders at Baptist Medical Center in Little Rock.
It was the third fatal accident at a Titan II silo. In 1965, 53 civilian workmen were killed in a silo near Searcy, Ark., when a welder's torch touched a line carrying a combustible fluid. In 1978, two airmen were killed when a leak led to the escape of a cloud of toxic gas near Rock, Kan.
A leak at the silo near Damascus occurred in January 1978, but the missile itself did not leak then, the Air Force said.
The events leading to the blast began Thursday, when a workman dropped a 3-pound wrench socket that punctured a fuel tank in the first stage of the missile, authorities said.
When vapor from leaking fuel was spotted, a four-man launch crew began releasing 100,000 gallons of water stored in a tank, said SAC spokesman Capt. Tom Mahr. The crew then left the building, and residents from surrounding towns as far as 10 miles away were evacuated.
Just after emergency team members left the silo, a blast seen 20 miles away left a smoking crater 250 feet wide, five times the normal size of the mouth of silo. The pastureland around the compound was littered with concrete and steel debris.
"There was a giant flame that went up about a couple of hundred feet. As it started to arc back down, the ground started rumbling. There were two extremely loud explosions, and then it was like a fireball rose up from the silo. The sky was all red," said state trooper Robert Hill, who was 1 1/2 miles away at the time of the explosion.
Evacuees were allowed to return home late Friday, some 11 hours after they were ordered out of the area.
"You can't just jump like a scared frog every time something happens," said KATHERINE SMITH, who lives two miles from the silo. "It's there. We live here. That's the way it is."
In Greenbrier, some 13 miles from the silo, MOSETTA THOMAS added "Fallout Burgers" to the menu at her diner. "Everybody had kind of long faces," she said. "It just kind of spirited everybody up."
The Air Force has 54 Titan II silos in Arizona, Kansas and Arkansas. Each state has 18 of them. The 155-foot silo is made of steel, concrete, and lead, a SAC spokesman said. The rocket, the nation's most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile, is supposed to be able to carry a 24-megaton warhead to targets 6,300 miles away.
The SAC spokesman said he did not know the cost of a silo or a Titan II missile, nor the monetary loss from the explosion at the silo about 3 1/2 miles north of Damascus. He said he did not know who dropped the socket. "We couldn't release that information if we did," said Capt. Curtis Hawker, a SAC spokesman in Omaha.
Oelwein Daily Register Iowa 1980-09-20