The Damascus Accident

From 1963-1987, The Titan II Intercontinental Ballistic Missile served as the United States primary weapon of deterrence in the on-going Nuclear Arms Race.

The Titan carried a substantial 9 megaton W-53 nuclear warhead. When detonated, it was estimated the nuclear blast would generate a fireball 3 miles in diameter, and deliver a lethal amount of heat and radiation out to 20 miles away from the center of the explosion.

In 30 minutes, a single Titan II could deliver a warhead to Moscow big enough to instantly wipe out an estimated 250,000 people.

 

The concealed silo of the 374-7 missile complex

 

U.S. Air Force Missile Complex 374-7 was located in an isolated area of Arkansas farmland, about 3 miles outside the tiny community of Damascus.

Built for maximum concealment, almost none of the structure was above ground. A chainlink fence surrounded an open field, littered with lights and radio towers. The biggest clue that something important lay below were the rotating shifts of 6 United States Air Force Police officers tasked with patrolling the grounds.

 

Dave Powell, suited up for propellant transfer

 

On September 18th, 1980, a small pressure drop was detected in the fuel tank of 374-7’s Titan missile.

Containment and Control

An extensively trained Propellant Transfer System team was dispatched into the silo at 6:30 p.m.

During investigation of the problem, Airman Dave Powell lost control of an 8 lb. metal socket. It fell down through the silo, where it bounced back and forth for 80 feet before puncturing a small hole in the side of the first stage rocket fuel tank.

The massive rocket silo of Complex 374-7, over 140 feet deep and 26 feet in diameter, immediately began to fill with a milky white cloud. This gas was a hypergolic rocket propellant called Aerozine 50. A combination of hydrazine and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH), it was incredibly toxic, flammable, and now expanding rapidly.

While the vapor was contained within the silo, the staff of the complex attempted to find a way to control the emergency before it turned into a disaster.

Early the next morning a 2 man team went back into the silo to attempt to activate the venting system, which would pump the toxic brew of chemicals out of the silo and into the surrounding countryside.

Layout of the Missile Complex, with seperate Launch Control (left) and Silo (right)

 

Catastrophe

Instead, around 3:00 a.m. a spark somewhere in the silo ignited the fuel, causing a blast which instantly consumed the first stage of the rocket.

The blast was powerful enough to lift the second stage of the rocket, the 9 megaton nuclear warhead, and finally the 740 ton silo door, up and away from the launch site. Once in the air, the second stage of the rocket also exploded, causing further damage and scattering even more debris.

Miraculously, there was only one death: Senior Airman David Livingston, one of the airmen who had attempted to activate the venting system. The other member of the team, Jeff K. Kennedy, survived with injuries along with 20 other people who had remained at the complex to try to somehow save the situation.

Once it had been established the site was safe, and that there would be no more explosions, a comprehensive search was initiated for the warhead which had been blown clear of the complex. It was eventually found in a ditch on the other side of the road from the entry gate. The warhead was completely intact and undetonated.

 

The Damascus complex after the explosion

 

Aftermath

The ongoing crisis happening at the Damascus site was concealed as much as possible. But as the chaos increased, local residents had started to piece things together by listening to the cryptic messages being sent by radio between the groups working at the complex.

When the explosion finally happened, the Air Force admitted a missile had exploded, but refused to confirm if a nuclear warhead had been present on the rocket.

Fault for the accident was laid squarely on the shoulders of both teams of propellant technicians, first the group that included Dave Powell who had dropped the socket, then the team who had gone in to try to disperse the vapor for not following proper procedures. The Titan II missile program was declared safe to continue.

The destroyed missile and the surrounding complex were never rebuilt. Instead, the entire area was demolished and covered over with fresh soil to eliminate any trace of its existence.

By 1987, the remaining Titan missiles were decommissioned and replaced by a new and improved Minuteman missile deterrent system. The Minuteman missile was faster, smaller, more accurate, and perhaps most importantly: it used a solid fuel which was maintenance-free, and could be stored inside the missile indefinitely.

 

Further Research

The chemistry of Hypergolic rocket fuel

“Human Error in Volatile Situations” podcast episode of This American Life

Titan Rocket, as seen launching the Gemini Space Capsule

Eric Schlosser, author of “Command and Control”

U.S. Government Air Force Systems Film

Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, Arizona

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7 Responses to “The Damascus Accident”

  1. Avatar

    Robert Swann

    That was a good read. Make you think of the importantance of following procedures and keeping control of your tools (FME).

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    Matt

    What is even more amazing is that this happened only once.
    If you look back at when in history when the Germans were developing this technology there were untold accidents very similar to this during development stages, testing, maintaining of similar rockets.

    Reply
  3. Avatar

    Steve Link

    PBS has a segment on this in their American Experience series…..called “Command and Control’ it is an hour long and goes thru the whole thing. Pretty interesting.
    https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/command-and-control/

    Reply
  4. Avatar

    Larry W Johnson

    Only about 50% of this story is true. There was no wrong doing by Kennedy or Livingston on the entry to the silo before the explosion. The comment about procedures is totally false. There were no procedures for a hole in the side of the missile and fuel leaking out at a tremendous rate. I am offended that you would throw blame on my friend Livingston who died, and Kennedy who died much later do to health problems associated with UDMH. exposure.

    Reply
  5. Avatar

    Richard Stokes

    I have visited the museum at Sahuarita,Arizona. This is an amazingly maintained site and the only one still owned by the U.S. government. All dangerous materials have been removed and the slide open launch door has been permanently locked half way open so the Russians can verify by satellite it is unusable. Every thing else appears as it did during it’s operational days, including the now empty missile body. Turning the launch key made my heart race.

    Reply
  6. Avatar

    Richard Ervin

    It would be greatly appreciated if Sportsmans Guide tended to their knitting. I was in the service for 13 years, 5 as an Air Force Officer and the rest in the Army in the 82nd Abn Div, 12 SF Group and the 20th Special Forces Group. Those are my Bona Fides. You should not promulgate this crap unless you know it is true. What possible good did this do? I will think twice about buying from you and I hate that, as I have been doing so for probably 20 years or close to it.

    Reply
  7. Avatar

    greg goetzinger

    in regards to Matt (of 21 Jan. 2019), ‘this’ happened three (3) times at Roswell, NM. Three explosions involving Titan Missiles.

    Reply