For a nuclear missile to explode once is a grave misfortune. When it explodes twice, as Oscar Wilde would have noted, then it starts to look like carelessness. But this is exactly what happened to the Titan II missile – part of America’s Cold War defence against the Soviet Union. In 1965, a Titan II missile caught fire in its huge underground silo in Arkansas killing 53 workers who were busy maintaining it at the time. And then in 1980, a Titan missile actually launched out of its silo, located again in Arkansas, but mercifully landed nearby without a nuclear blast.
For me, it’s a rather personal story as a cousin of mine was killed in the first incident.
First nuclear missile explodes in 1965
On August 9, 1965, fifty-five workers were toiling on nine descending levels in a silo that reached over a hundred feet underground – the equivalent of a 15-storey building. In front of them was a gigantic missile ready to be fired at Moscow. An intercontinental ballistics missile that could deliver a nuclear warhead six thousand miles away causing widespread devastation. It was referred to as “the bird” and its silo, “the nest”.
Newspapers at the time were very discreet about what was going on and how many of these workers were non-military contractors. What has emerged since is that the silo was being strengthened to defend it from a possible Soviet nuclear attack. Three years earlier, the world had held its breath as the United States and Soviet Union squared up to each other during the Cuban missiles crisis. Project Yard Fence ensured that the missile would be protected from any nearby nuclear explosion.
Health and safety left a bit to be desired in 1965. Blow torches were being operated at all levels as work was undertaken at a brisk pace. One of the workers detected a rush of warm air on his back and turned to see flames. Along the whole silo, the lights went out. Then the emergency lighting kicked in. Klaxons began sounding. And workers desperately made for the escape ladder.
The silo elevator no longer worked. And as the smoke thickened and choked everybody, it was impossible to see anything. Out of 55 workers, only two survived. Astonishingly, one newspaper report tried to blame two escaping workers getting jammed in an exit for the death of the other 53.
One incident where “a welding (contract employed civilian) caused a flexible high pressure line containing flammable hydraulic fluid to rupture by accidentally striking it with a welding rod” set off a chain of events that sucked the oxygen out of the huge chamber. Masks that had been issued were useless. Fire extinguishers were in short supply. And the investigation found prohibited cigarettes and lighters among the dead.
Recovering the bodies was undertaken by safety teams – wearing asbestos suits. While having their lives shortened unknowingly by their ‘safety’ clothes, the team could at least draw some comfort from the fact that the nuclear warhead had been removed ahead of construction work.
My cousin killed in the first explosion
For several years, I’ve been researching my family tree on Ancestry.com and discovered that on the Irish side of my family, I have many American relatives. These are the descendants of ancestors who left Ireland during and after the 19th century potato famine with most of the males becoming miners. One branch of the family went mining in Arkansas but a generation later, a cousin of mine – Charles Peter McMahon (1925-1965) – was employed as an electrician at the nuclear missile base near the city of Searcy.
His death at the age of 40 struck me as unusual and on further investigation I discovered – sadly – that he was one of the 53 victims of the 1965 Titan missile silo fire. His death certificate specified the immediate cause of death as asphyxiation. And in other newspaper reports, it turned out that his widow was suing a consortium of defence contractors for over $800k – which is about $7.7m today (article continues after image below).
DISCOVER: How to survive a nuclear war
Nuclear missile explodes in 1980
Arkansas was host to several nuclear missile sites in the Cold War era and fifteen years later, the state was back in the news over its space-age weaponry.
On September 19, 1980, an accident occurred at a missile site located at Damascus, Arkansas, that managed to fully eject the missile from its silo. This unplanned launch required an explosion of epic magnitude. Which is exactly what happened. Massive chunks of steel were sent flying skywards as the nuclear device flew out.
Without going into all the technical details, human error resulted in damage to the missile at Damascus on the day before which then required remedial action in very dangerous conditions. Two very brave men then entered the silo but were unable to prevent a blast that blew clean off the 740-tonne door that sealed the top of the silo and launched the missile with its thermonuclear warhead. It landed a short distance and didn’t explode.
One of the two men, incredibly, survived. But the other – 22-year-old David Lee Livingston – succumbed to his injuries. A newspaper article that week stated that he had been hit by debris and then breathed in a substance so toxic that his sister was told her brother had “no lungs left”.
This second disaster was too much for some politicians in the US Congress who asked whether a weapon that had once been regarded as cutting edge technology was now “an outmoded dinosaur” posing more of a threat to Americans than to the Soviets. This giant among nuclear missiles was retired in 1987 with few mourning its passing.