That Close to Oblvion

by John Delach

The evening of September 18, 1980 found the Arkansas Democrats gathered together in Little Rock for their annual party’s convention. William S. Clinton, then governor, chaired the convention.  Hillary joined her husband and Vice President Walter Mondale was their guest of honor. Little did they know that fifty-miles to the northwest near the little town of Damascus all hell was breaking loose at the Titan II Missile Complex 374-7.


Eighteen Titan II complexes were spread over 150 miles of rural Arkansas north of Little Rock AFB their operational HQ. Each complex controlled one Titan II Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) mounting a single W-53, 9.5 megaton warhead with enough firepower to take out a medium city like Little Rock. These complexes were designated 373-1 to 9 and 374-1 to 9.


An experienced crew had assumed control of 374-4 that day. Led by Capt. Michael T. Mazzaro, it included his launch officer, 1st Lt Allan Childers and the two enlisted technicians, SSgt Rodney L. Miller and SSgt Ronald O. Full. This tour included a supernumerary, 1st Lt Miguel A. Serrano, in training to be a silo commander. The team had already experienced an unusual day that delayed arrival for their 24-hour shift. First their assignment changed as their original complex, 374-5, was undergoing maintenance. They were further delayed because the alternator on the crew vehicle had to be replaced.


Adding to the stress, Capt. Mazzaro decided to alert HQ that the pressure in the missile’s oxidizer tank was below acceptable levels. HQ dispatched a repair team on call already performing repairs at other silos. The repair team (PTS0) didn’t reach 374-7 until 6:30 PM. By then, they had been on the job that day for eleven-hours. Sergeant David F. Powell and Airman Jeffrey Plumb made their way into the silo.


Was it fatigue or carelessness that led to their fatal mistake? The two-man team had been issued new procedures requiring them to use a torque wrench and socket to remove a pressure cap. But they had left the torque wrench in their truck and, rather than climb back out of the silo to retrieve it, Powell decided to make the repairs using a ratchet wrench, the previously approved procedure.


“Powell picked up the ratchet with the socket seemingly attached. As he swung it up into operating position, the 8.75-pound socket separated from the ratchet at waist high level, fell onto the Level 2 platform, bounced once onto the rubber boot between the platform edge and the missile airframe, and before either technician could grab it, pushed through the boot and fell approximately 80 feet. The socket hit on the thrust mount ring, then bounced upward and toward the missile puncturing the Stage I fuel tank skin.”


White liquid began to pour out of the missile and into the silo creating a noticeable cloud of Aerozine 50 vapor. “Aerozine 50 is hypergolic with the Titan II’s oxidizer, nitrogen tetroxide; i.e., they spontaneously ignite upon contact with each other. The nitrogen tetroxide is kept in a second tank in the rocket’s first stage, directly above the (pierced) fuel tank and below the second stage and its 9.5-megaton nuclear weapon.”


Powell notified Mazzaro of the fuel leak then he and Plumb evacuated the silo. News of the leak made its way up the chain of command and on to Strategic Air Command (SAC) HQ in Omaha. One issue was tackled immediately, nobody in the chain of command would confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons on the Titan II leaking fuel in Silo 374-4.


The danger was two-fold, the vapors could create a hazardous situation of an explosive atmosphere needing only a source of ignition, or as the fuel tank emptied, the almost empty shell would no longer support the rocket above it. This would likely rupture the nitrogen tank and explode.  Definitive data didn’t exist to predict with certainty if an explosion would be powerful enough to detonate the missile’s warhead.


When detonated, a 9.5 megaton device would release three times the destructive power of all the bombs used by all the armies in the Second World War including the two atom bombs dropped on Japan. 


Around 9 PM, the crew was ordered to evacuate. Mazzaro originally objected to this order on the theory that they could assist emergency crews in entering the complex, but he was overridden. Evacuation too, became a drama as the crew found the regular passageways were saturated with fuel vapor. This forced them to evacuate by way of a separate emergency “chimney” tube where they climbed to safety.


At some point during the night, the instruments in the complex sensed a fire condition and inundated the silo with more than 100,000 gallons of water from a massive sprinkler system.


The first attempt to re-enter the complex were thwarted by the inner blast door that could only be opened from the inside. Two other technicians, Sgt Jeff K. Kennedy and Am David Livingston took readings inside the complex that found airborne fuel concentration was at its maximum density.


About 3 AM, Livingston was ordered to turn on an exhaust fan and shortly thereafter, the silo blew up.


The blast obliterated the silo and sent the 740-ton steel and concrete launch door more than 200 feet into the air and 600 feet from the complex. The warhead landed 150 feet from the silo. Twenty-two people were injured, and Livingston died of his injuries the following day.


To this day, nobody knows how close the warhead came to detonating. If it did, one source estimated 3,000 citizens would have died and the history of our presidential elections could have been completely altered.


…and now, let us pray.


On the Outside Looking in won’t publish next week and will return on August 15,