Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser describes the terrifyingly close calls to nuclear catastrophe and the incredibly high odds of nuclear weapons accidents. (It’s 100%). Schlosser is the author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (http://goo.gl/kb3yZO).
Famed investigative journalist Eric Schlosser digs deep to uncover secrets about the management of America’s nuclear arsenal. A groundbreaking account of accidents, near misses, extraordinary heroism, and technological breakthroughs, Command and Control explores the dilemma that has existed since the dawn of the nuclear age: How do you deploy weapons of mass destruction without being destroyed by them? That question has never been resolved—and Schlosser reveals how the combination of human fallibility and technological complexity still poses a grave risk to mankind. While the harms of global warming increasingly dominate the news, the equally dangerous yet more immediate threat of nuclear weapons has been largely forgotten.
Written with the vibrancy of a first-rate thriller, Command and Control interweaves the minute-by-minute story of an accident at a nuclear missile silo in rural Arkansas with a historical narrative that spans more than fifty years. It depicts the urgent effort by American scientists, policy makers, and military officers to ensure that nuclear weapons can’t be stolen, sabotaged, used without permission, or detonated inadvertently. Schlosser also looks at the Cold War from a new perspective, offering history from the ground up, telling the stories of bomber pilots, missile commanders, maintenance crews, and other ordinary servicemen who risked their lives to avert a nuclear holocaust. At the heart of the book lies the struggle, amid the rolling hills and small farms of Damascus, Arkansas, to prevent the explosion of a ballistic missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built by the United States.
Drawing on recently declassified documents and interviews with people who designed and routinely handled nuclear weapons, Command and Control takes readers into a terrifying but fascinating world that, until now, has been largely hidden from view. Through the details of a single accident, Schlosser illustrates how an unlikely event can become unavoidable, how small risks can have terrible consequences, and how the most brilliant minds in the nation can only provide us with an illusion of control. Audacious, gripping, and unforgettable, Command and Control is a tour de force of investigative journalism, an eye-opening look at the dangers of America’s nuclear age.
The Titan II Launch Complex 374-7 in Southside (Van Buren County), just north of Damascus (Van Buren and Faulkner counties), became the site of the most highly publicized disaster in the history of the Titan II missile program when its missile exploded within the launch duct on September 19, 1980. An Air Force airman was killed, and the complex was destroyed. The Titan II Missile Launch Complex 374-7 Site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on February 18, 2000.
Complex 374-7 had already been the site of one significant accident on January 27, 1978, when an oxidizer leak sent a cloud of toxic fumes 3,000 feet long, 300 feet wide, and 100 feet high drifting across U.S. Highway 65. Civilians were evacuated from the area, and four people suffered some ill effects from contact with the vapors. The leak was quickly repaired.
On September 18, 1980, at about 6:30 p.m., an airman conducting maintenance on the Titan II missile dropped a wrench socket, which fell about eighty feet before hitting and piercing the skin on the rocket’s first-stage fuel tank, causing it to leak. The commander of the 308th Strategic Missile Wing quickly formed a potential-hazard team, and by 9:00 p.m., the Air Force personnel manning the site were evacuated. About one hour later, Air Force security police began evacuating nearby civilian residents as efforts continued to determine the status of the missile and the fuel leak.
Senior Airman David Livingston and Sergeant Jeff K. Kennedy entered the launch complex early on the morning of September 19 to get readings of airborne fuel concentrations, which they found to be at their maximum. At about 3:00 a.m., the two men returned to the surface to await further instructions. Just as they sat down on the concrete edge of the access portal, the missile exploded, blowing the 740-ton launch duct closure door 200 feet into the air and some 600 feet northeast of the launch complex. The W-53 nuclear warhead landed about 100 feet from the launch complex’s entry gate; its safety features operated correctly and prevented any loss of radioactive material. Kennedy, his leg broken, was blown 150 feet from the silo. Livingston lay amid the rubble of the launch duct for some time before security personnel located and evacuated him. Livingston died of his injuries that day. Twenty-one people were injured by the explosion or during rescue efforts.
In early October 1980, cleanup operations gathered tons of debris from around 400 acres surrounding the launch complex and pumped some 100,000 gallons of contaminated water from the silo. The total cost to replace Launch Complex 374-7 was estimated at $225,322,670, while demolition and cleanup were expected to cost $20,000,000. Ultimately, the Air Force decided to seal the complex with soil, gravel, and small concrete debris.
A congressional inquiry into the accident found the Titan II missile program to be essentially reliable. It recommended, however, improved communications between the Air Force and local officials in case of accidents and a modification of the Air Force’s policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence and condition of nuclear weapons at an accident site.
Six Air Force servicemen, including Livingston and Kennedy, were awarded Airman’s Medals for Heroism for their actions on September 19, 1980, and the Titan II maintenance structure at Little Rock Air Force Base was later designated the Livingston Building in honor of Livingston.
For additional information:
Cold War Resources Associated with the 308th Strategic Missile Wing in Arkansas Multiple-Property Submission Historic Context. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Schlosser, Eric. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. New York: Penguin, 2013.
Stumpf, David K. “We Can Neither Confirm Nor Deny.” In Sentinels of History: Reflections on Arkansas Properties on the National Register of Historic Places, edited by Mark K. Christ and Cathryn H. Slater. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
———. Titan II: A History of a Cold War Missile Program. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
“Titan II ICBM Launch Complex 374-7.” National Register of Historic Places nomination form. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Mark K. Christ
Arkansas Historic Preservation Program