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Nation: Light on the Road to Damascus

2 minute read
TIME

Titan terror explodes in the Arkansas hills

Shortly after sunset one day last week, a maintenance worker on the third level of a silo housing a 103-ft. Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile near Damascus, in the Arkansas hills north of Little Rock, dropped the socket of a wrench. The 3-lb. tool plummeted 70 ft. and punctured a fuel tank. As flammable vapors escaped, officials urged the 1,400 people living in a five-mile radius of the silo to flee. The instructions: “Don’t take time to close your doors—just get out.”

And with good reason. At 3:01 a.m., as technicians gave up trying to plug the leak and began climbing from the silo, the mixture of fuel and oxygen exploded. Orange flames and smoke spewed out, lighting up the sky over Damascus. The blast blew off a 750-ton concrete cover. One worker was killed; 21 others were hurt.

Officials reported that no radiation leaked from the missile, which was tipped with a multimegaton nuclear warhead. But the explosion was the second accident of the week involving U.S. nuclear weapons; the first was a fire at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N. Dak., that damaged a B-52 bomber thought to be carrying 32 shortrange, nuclear missiles.

The incidents reopened the debate over the safety of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, particularly of the 54 liquid-fuel Titan II missiles, which date from 1963; 18 of them are based in Arkansas, the rest in Arizona and Kansas. Air Force Secretary Hans Mark, a rocketry expert, insists that the Titans are not obsolete and are “a perfectly safe system to operate,” despite 40 mishaps in ten years, two of them resulting in deaths or injuries. At the very least, Democratic Senator David Pryor of Arkansas demanded, the Air Force should set up a more effective warning system for Titan II sites. Said he: “Right now we are using the Paul Revere method—word of mouth.”

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