At the height of the cold war, on the night of January 24, 1961, an Air Force bomber carrying two nuclear bombs broke in half while flying over eastern North Carolina near the town of Goldsboro, according to recently declassified documents.
The documents by the National Security Archive show that one bomb’s arming mechanism switched from “safe” to “armed” on impact, reported Fox News. The other bomb fluttered under a parachute and would have exploded if two cockpit wires had happened to touch as the B-52 disintegrated.
Then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said: “By the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.”
Eight Crew members were aboard the plane that night, five survived the crash.
If the explosion happened today, with populations in their area at the current level, would kill more than 60,000 people and injure more than 54,000, according to CNN.
North Carolina’s population in 1961 was 47 percent of what it is today, so the actual numbers from then puts the death toll at 28,000 with 26,000 injured.
UCLA researchers estimate that Japan cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki had populations of 330,000 and 250,000 when they were bombed in August 1945. The cities’ deaths were at least 90,000 and 60,000 people.
The report said as the bomber broke up after suffering a “failure of the right wing.”
“The bomb had the potential to make the one used in Hiroshima look like the work of a cap gun,” said Eric Schlosser of George Washington University.
Schlosser, who wrote Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety in 2013, the bomb called “Weapon I,” which was the one in “safe” mode, came the closest to detonating.
“It behaved as though it was dropped over the Soviet Union at the time,” Schlosser said.
It is unclear how often these type of accidents have occurred; the Defense Department has disclosed 32 incidents involving nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1980.
Two months after the crash near Goldsboro, another B-52 was flying over California when the cabin depressurized and the crew ejected, according to the DOD documents. The bomber crashed near Yuba City, and the bombs did not detonate due to safety devices.
“I could see three or four other chutes against the glow of the wreckage,” said Major Richard Rardin, co-pilot of the plane that crashed near Goldsboro.
“I hit some trees. I had a fix on some lights and started walking.”
Rardin did not know how big of a disaster had been avoided.
“My biggest difficulty getting back was the various and sundry dogs I encountered on the road.”
[Image via allworldwars.com]