Rock, KS Missile Silo Accident, Aug 1978
GIANT MISSILE LEAKS DEADLY GAS.
FUMES KILL MAN, FORCE EVACUATION OF TOWN.
Rock, Kan. (UPI) -- A fuel line carrying a toxic chemical used as rocket propellant ruptured during fueling of an unarmed Titan II missile Thursday, killing one maintenance worker and injuring six others.
The Air Force said caustic fumes from the leak forced evacuation of about 200 residents of Rock, a rural community located about two miles north of the underground nuclear missile silo, and other persons who lived near the site.
Most residents began returning home during the evening hours, but officials were uncertain those close to the site could return.
The Air Force withheld names of the victims pending notification of relatives, and said the cause of the one death had not been determined.
The chemical oxidizer which was leaking, nitrogen tetroxide, is one of two components of the propellant. Air Force officials said there was no danger of explosion because the fuel, a mixture of 50 percent hydrazine and unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine, was not present.
Ignition can occur only when the fuel and the oxidizer make contact, said Capt. Al Defend.
"There was no fuel in there."
The accident occurred about noontime as a crew of eight maintenance workers was transferring the oxidizer to the 103-foot-tall missile, which weighs 150 tons and is the nation's largest ICBM with a range of 8,000 miles. The Titan II, the type of rocket used by NASA to supply lift for its Gemini project space ships, had been placed in its silo last week following maintenance procedures.
Four silo crew members were at the site, but escaped unharmed. They were airlifted to McConnell Air Force Base at Wichita, 35 miles to the northeast, for observation.
Three of the injured maintenance workers were treated for "non-serious" injuries at a hospital emergency room in nearby Winfield. A spokesman said they were suffering from minor respiratory problems. The conditions of the other three injured persons, who were taken to McConnell, were not known.
Defend said the missile had a "several thousand gallon tank" for the oxidizer, "but I don't know how much it had in it." He said officials still had not determined the exact location of the leak.
Jim Hodgson, a farmer who owns the land around the missile complex, said Air Force personnel came to his house at 12:15 p.m. to warn of the leak.
"We didn't smell anything ... didn't see anything ..
until we got out and (went) past some timber and saw the cloud," he said. "It was moving through a
little east of our house. I guess it was blowing just right (to miss us)."
Hodgson was accompanied by his friend Verne Woner and his son, Casey Woner, who said they could see workers at the site frantically trying to escape the fumes.
"We could see them jumping across the fence, tearing off their clothes and washing down with water," he said.
Then about 10 persons drove up the farm house in a pickup, ripped off their shirts and used a garden hose to rinse down before leaving for the hospital in Winfield, he said.
Mrs. Woner said, "They came running to the truck, drove up to us and told us to get out of the way. I thought it (the missile) was going to blow up. But they just didn't want us to get in their way."
Six hours after the accident, the toxic fumes were still spewing into the air and drifting about 75 feet off the ground, but officials said they were dissipating within one-half mile. The cloud of gas, described as pink to orange in color shortly after the leak began, was no longer visible, according to witnesses.
A few area residents close to the site were still unable to return to their homes by evening and Civil Defense officials were assisting in efforts to find places for them to spend the night.
Capt. Ken Schwetje, an assistant staff judge advocate, said any injuries or damages resulting from the accident would be paid for by the Air Force.
"If anybody has damages resulting from this accident, they can file claims at McConnell," he said. "if the damage is a result of this accident, we'll pay."
The Post Standard Syracuse New York 1978-08-25
Listing of some of the victims:
SSGT. ROBERT J. THOMAS, dead at scene.
Airman 1st Class ERBY HEPSTALL, died 9-3-1978 in Wesley Hospital in Winfield, Kansas.
AIrman 1st Class CAL MALINGER, recovered with permanent damage to his vocal cords and lungs and paralysis in his left arm.