Nuclear Bomb Mishap: The Day North Carolina Was Almost Destroyed
The year is 1961. A B-52 soars through the Tar Heel sky. Operation Coverall required one-third of all bombers to remain in the sky at any given point, and this B-52 and its crew were not going to be caught on the ground when the Soviets finally attacked.
With the fates of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still echoing in the minds of military strategists across the globe, it seemed foolish to strike at the United States. But there were fools aplenty giving orders, and this B-52 would be quick to retaliate with its payload– two Mark-39 thermonuclear bombs.
A mid-air refueling was scheduled and a tanker arrived at midnight. During the hookup, Major W. S. Tulloch was told he had a leak in the B-52’s wing. Gas lines in this plane were routed through the wings, and a leak there was serious business.
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The refueling was halted immediately and Tulloh’s B-52 was told to head out past the coast until it’s fuel was consumed. By the time it reached the sea, the pilot reported that 37,000 pounds of fuel had been lost inside of three minutes.
Major Tulloch was hastily ordered to return to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. The bomber never made it.
The pilot lost control as the plane approached Goldsboro. Six men ejected at 9,000 feet as the plane began to violently shake and break apart. The pilots, however, remained on board to try to steady the aircraft as long as possible. But there was a bigger problem. The bombs came loose and became damaged. Each bomb had four arming switches, and damage from the crumbling plane caused them to flip away from the “safe” position.
The plane crashed in Faro, just north of Goldsboro, killing two pilots. One bomb’s parachute deployed and floated down to the ground safely, getting caught in a tree. The second slammed into the earth with three of its switches armed. One stray piece of shrapnel, one wrong gust of wind, one wrong vibration would mean the worst nuclear disaster in the history of mankind. In a flash, the ejected crew saw the future.
Faro and everything within an eight and a half mile radius was incinerated with 260 times the force of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima. Goldsboro, Greenville, Rocky Mount, and Kinston felt shockwaves severe enough to throw cars and uproot forests. The intense heat burned whatever remained. Tremors caused by the explosion obliterated the wholly unprepared Raleigh, Fayetteville, and New Bern.
Buildings collapsed and burned, and quakes were felt as far north as New York. Thousands upon thousands died.
The fallout would have covered an immense area, claiming thousands more lives over time as the people angrily blamed the Government, the Soviets, or both.
Faro was a dead zone, its fields reduced to lifeless ash. North Carolina was shattered, its fragments stirring the rest of the world to endlessly debate the mistakes, fears, failures, and attitudes that led to so much accidental destruction.
But the fourth switch never flipped.
In March of 2013, former Air Force weapons disposal specialist Jack ReVelle spoke at ECU describing his experience handling the recovery of the buried bomb, and revealed just how close the entire region was to nuclear annihilation. “Until my death I will never forget hearing my sergeant say, ‘Lieutenant, we found the arm/safe switch,'” ReVelle said. “And I said, ‘Great.’ He said, ‘Not great. It’s on arm.'”
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Instead, the Army bought the 400 feet of land encircling the remains of the bomb, and left it there. It remains there to this day, just north of Goldsboro.
“We’ll never know with any precision exactly how close we came to the worst catastrophe imaginable,” ReVelle said. “But it was damn close.”