North Carolina came terrifyingly close to being irradiated in a nuclear weapons accident in 1961.
On January 24th of that year, a B-52 bomber carrying two live nuclear bombs was flying over the town of Goldsboro when a fuel leak caused it to crash.
The pilots lost control and bailed out. The plane broke apart in midair and the two MK.39 nuclear bombs, each with the explosive power of 20,000 tons of TNT, fell to earth. That’s enough explosive power to wipe out Goldsboro, the nearby Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and possibly even parts of Raleigh.
The accident prompted an investigation by nuclear scientists at the Sandia National Lab and Los Alamos National Lab.
Documents from that investigation have recently been made public by the National Security Archives.
Investigators found that the initial breakup of the plane caused both bombs to begin the arming process.
Each of the nuclear weapons were equipped with an electric switch and other devices designed to prevent an accidental explosion.
The first bomb’s parachute deployed and hit the ground with an impact that jolted safing pins from the generator that provided electricity to the device. Fortunately the switch stayed in the “off” position and the bomb did not explode.
It’s what happened to the second bomb that is most worrying. The declassified report says its parachute did not open, causing it to plummet in free-fall. While its Arm/Safe switch stayed in the “safe” position, the violent movements as the B-52 disintegrated caused the wires inside the switch to connect, as though it had been armed.
The same shock that jostled the insides of the arming switch also damaged wires that would have sent electricity to the detonator, and so the second bomb also crashed into the ground without exploding.
But the scientists were so shocked that the violent impact of a plane crash could activate the arming mechanism that the military replaced the switches on all it’s nuclear warheads.
And so, an accident that nearly wiped out the eastern part of the state ended up forcing a change of how nuclear weapons are handled.
The full story is written in Eric Schlosser’s 2013 book Command and Control of Nuclear Weapons.
A version of this story appears in CBS Charlotte