GOLDSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — This week marks the 61st anniversary of what could have been the worst disaster in North Carolina history.
FOX8’s Bob Buckley takes a look back at the day atomic bombs dropped on North Carolina.
January 1961 was the height of the Cold War.
“This is the time that people are building fallout shelters in their back yards,” said author Joel Dobson.
America had a dozen B-52s in the air at all times that were ready to strike the Soviet Union at a moment’s notice.
Adam Mattocks was a pilot on one of those B-52s, called Keep 19, that took off from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro on the morning of Jan. 23, 1961.
“They were fully loaded. They had two thermonuclear bombs on board,” Dobson said.
About halfway through their mission, the trouble started aboard the Keep 19.
“They had this huge fuel leak. They lost 19 tons of fuel in two minutes. There was something really…wrong with that thing,” Dobson said.
They tried to return to Seymour Johnson, but about twelve miles out, they realized how bad their situation was.
So they turned off some engines, and the fuel leak was destroying others.
“The airplane disintegrated in midair,” Dobson said.
Pilot Scott Tulloch had given the order to abandon the plane.
So Adam Mattocks, the only pilot without an ejection seat, took a leap of faith and jumped for the hatches the other pilots had just gone out and somehow avoided getting cut in half by the rest of the spiraling airplane and began floating toward a field.
That was the good news.
The bad news was there were two nuclear bombs aboard that plane that were blown out of the bomb bay as if they were launched in an attack.
That’s when Jack ReVelle got a wake-up call from his squadron commander.
He was a 25-year-old explosive ordnance disposal expert, which he needed to be because there was explosive power greater than all the bombs ever used on this planet hanging from the trees in Faro.
ReVelle and his team disarmed one relatively easily.
“That’s when the real challenge started because that’s when we turned our attention over to the weapon that penetrated the ground,” ReVelle said.
The Air Force was in full-alert damage control.
“They said four things: There were two bombs, they were unarmed, that both bombs had been recovered and there was no danger. Out of those four things, only one thing was really true: There were two bombs,” Dobson said.
“We started digging first with shovels and then realized this thing had gone way, way deep. Shovels aren’t going to cut it,” ReVelle said.
So they brought in more men and bigger gear.
“The hole was so big, they had a spiral road going down into it,” ReVelle said.
They were desperately looking for the bomb, particularly the switch that would tell them if it were on, “armed” or “safe.”
Eventually, one of ReVelle’s team members found it.
“He calls up from out of the hole, he says, ‘Hey, lieutenant!’ I said, ‘Yeah?’ He says, ‘I just found the armed/safe switch.’ I said, ‘Good.’ He says, ‘No. Not good. It’s on armed.’ I get goosebumps now just talking about that,” ReVelle said.
But the bomb ended up in pieces. ReVelle eventually found the plutonium, which is the primary part of the bomb.
But they never did find the uranium portion of that bomb. Even to this day, it still sits 180 feet below the ground.
Several studies on the bomb show that it doesn’t pose any danger anymore.
But the man who was defense secretary at the time, Robert McNamara, later said that the bombs went through six of the seven stages needed to detonate.
The armed/safe switch was the thing that prevented it from happening.