Two of the most serious disasters to plague the Titan II missile program during the Cold War occurred in Arkansas.
I can recall vividly the September 1980 explosion which destroyed a missile in its silo located near Damascus on the Faulkner-Van Buren County line. I was living out of state at the time, but the disaster was covered in depth by the national press.
A far more deadly disaster struck a Titan launch site near Searcy in White County on Aug. 9, 1965, resulting in the deaths of 53 men. The Titan II missile program was terminated by the Reagan administration, but memories still burn brightly among many Arkansans.
Along with bombers and sea-launched ballistic missiles, the Titan II missile program was a bulwark in the nation's three pronged-response to threats posed by the Soviet Union's large nuclear warfare capacity. The missiles were housed in 54 launch sites located in three states; Arkansas had 18 launch complexes located in Faulkner, Conway, White, Van Buren, and Cleburne counties. They were situated in north-central Arkansas to ensure ready access to Little Rock Air Force Base, where the 308th Strategic Missile Wing coordinated the work in Arkansas.
The silos were of necessity deep, about 150 feet. The missile was more than 100 feet in length and 10 feet wide. Each launch complex contained underground operational offices as well as living quarters for a staff of four.
The first launch complex completed was situated near Pangburn northwest of Searcy, going operational on July 31, 1962. Three years later the Pangburn launch site was rocked by an explosion which killed 53 of the 55 contract workers doing maintenance work.
Historian Mark Christ, author of multiple entries on the Titan II program in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, has provided a succinct description of the tragedy: "... Civilian construction workers were working in all nine levels of the launch duct, painting and flushing the hydraulic systems that operated the steel platforms beside the missile. At about 1 p.m. the launch duct was suddenly filled with intense heat and billowing smoke." Christ explained that the deaths were not caused by the explosion itself, but by the rapid loss of oxygen.
Investigators later discovered that a welder working on level 3 had "hit a hydraulic line with his welding rod, rupturing the hose and causing the spray of hydraulic fuel to catch fire." The missile was not armed at the time.
Only two men escaped the silo, both telling stories of horror. They told of groping around in total darkness, hearing the screams of co-workers: "Men were screaming and crying. I heard somebody yelling "Help me! God. God, help me! but I couldn't see him." Many of the dead were found crowded around an escape ladder.
Air Force crews reacted quickly to the disaster, putting out fires and searching for survivors. However, a new threat arose from the growing heat inside the silo. "When power failed in the launch duct," Mark Christ has noted, "the air-conditioning turned off, raising temperatures in the silo and creating conditions that could lead to an explosion of the oxidizer within the missile, which had a boiling point of 70 degrees." Fortunately, the situation stabilized and the grim task of removing the bodies began.
The missile not only survived the explosion in 1965, it was the same missile which exploded in 1980 near Damascus. The former disaster took far more lives, but the Damascus explosion posed a far greater potential threat because the missile was armed with its warhead at the time.
As was the case with the Pangburn disaster, the explosion at the Damascus launch site resulted from routine maintenance work. At about 6:30 p.m. Sept. 18, 1980, an airman working on the missile dropped a wrench socket, which fell 80 feet before hitting and piercing the rocket's first-stage fuel tank, causing a leak, but not an immediate explosion.
By 9 p.m. the Air Force had a team on site and began evacuating personnel as well as some local residents.
Mark Christ set the stage: "Senior Airman David Livingston and Sergeant Jeff K. Kennedy then entered the launch complex early on the morning of Sept. 19 to get readings on airborne fuel concentrations, which they found to be at their maximum. At about 3 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 doors 200 feet into the air and some 600 feet northeast of the launch complex.
"The 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 [later] that day." A total of 21 people were injured.
Reports in the Arkansas Gazette described the devastation: "The inside of the 155-foot-deep silo was reduced to rubble and its concrete doors which weigh 740 tons ... were blown to pieces. Aerial photographs taken Friday morning showed a gaping hole with smoke drifting from it, and debris scattered over hilly pastureland." It took a while to locate the nine-megaton nuclear warhead in the dark and gloom; it was still intact and not leaking.
Investigations including a congressional inquiry delved into the Damascus tragedy. U.S. Senator David Pryor's office had been concerned about the safety of the Titan sites since January 1978 when a cloud of toxic vapor was accidentally released at the Damascus launch site, resulting in four hospitalizations. Ultimately, the Titan system was declared to be essentially reliable, though minor changes were recommended.
President Reagan announced plans to retire the Titan II program in September 1981, only one year after the Damascus disaster. The last of the Titan launch sites in Arkansas, located near Quitman in Cleburne County, was demolished on Nov. 19, 1986.
Three of the Arkansas launch sites--in White, Van Buren, and Faulkner counties--have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.email@example.com.
Editorial on 05/19/2019
Print Headline: The Titan missile silo disasters