It began with an honest mistake that even the most skilled craftsman has made hundreds of times. A young technician dropped a socket wrench. But on that day in 1980, it was a mistake that almost ended the world.
The scene was the Titan II Launch Complex 374-7 near Damascus in southern Van Buren County on September 18, 1980, amid rising Cold War tensions. The silo was one of eighteen in Arkansas, all maintained by the 308th Strategic Missile Wing of the US Air Force.
The missile at the Damascus complex and similar facilities carried the most powerful nuclear warhead ever put on a missile. And the warhead itself nearly exploded that day. Serious accidents at Titan II facilities had occurred in Arkansas before. A 1965 fire at a silo under construction near Searcy left 53 men dead. A 1978 accident at the Damascus site had released gases that left four injured and led to a brief evacuation.
The wrench that the Air Force airman dropped had struck the missile’s fuel tank, and the thin skin of the rocket began to leak. Immediately, local authorities and media were alerted to the serious problem and began warning residents to evacuate. The missile silo team, led by Captain Michael Mazzaro, attempted to gauge the situation. Their instruments told them a fire had started and fire suppression systems dumped 100,000 gallons of water onto the missile.
However, a continuing string of malfunctions made the situation worse. Fire suppression systems and water pumps failed. Because of previous repairs and faulty maintenance, above-ground fire crews had no water to combat the fire. Instruments gave conflicting reports on the situation to the silo crew as to the nature of the fire and whether the oxidizers for the missile had been damaged.
A team of experts and mechanics was quickly sent to Damascus, including Jeff Kennedy and David Livingston. Kennedy and Livingston attempted to reach the missile to check the missile’s fuel pressure gauges directly. Overwhelmed by the fuel vapors, the two realized the missile would explode and tried to leave the silo quickly, but Livingston stayed back to activate the ventilation system to clear out the vapor. At 3 AM, the missile exploded, leaving Kennedy’s leg broken and fatally injuring Livingston.
Safety systems on the missile’s warhead managed to keep it from exploding and irradiating large portions of Arkansas. The nine-megaton warhead the Titan II carried would have flattened every city in the vicinity: Damascus, Heber Springs, Clinton, Conway, Morrillton, not to mention all the smaller towns and farms in between. Flash-blindness would have injured thousands of others as far as Russellville, Little Rock, and Batesville. All of Central and Eastern Arkansas would have been soaked in radioactive fallout that would have left countless dead and the region uninhabitable for years afterward.
Worse still, Soviet officials confirmed to American investigators afterward that they could easily have misinterpreted even an accidental explosion of the warhead as a prelude to attack and launched a full nuclear strike on the United States.
Twenty-one people were injured in the accident. Livingston was the only man to die. Livingston, Kennedy, and four others were given citations for their heroism.
In Livingston’s memory, Little Rock Air Force Base renamed its missile maintenance building after him. Eventually, the silo was decommissioned, decontaminated, and dismantled, with the property returning to the original owners, Ralph and Reba Jo Parish.
It is not an exaggeration to state that the men at the silo and their support teams on that day in 1980 literally saved the world. Sometimes the most important history is what didn’t happen.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a Professor of History at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado. He is the proud father of six children. He has written seven books and his columns appear in more than 85 papers in two states. Dr. Bridges can be contacted by email at email@example.com.