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.
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.
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.
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 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.