Sid King had just sat down to dinner on September 18, 1980 when he got the call.
King was part owner of KGFL-AM in Clinton, Arkansas. He started the TV station after his previous employer, Dogpatch, a Li’l Abner theme park, went belly-up. At a station that small, King couldn’t afford to specialize. He was also the station manager and news reporter.
The station called King while he was eating at sales representative Tom Phillips’s home. They’d heard on the scanner there was something going on at Missile Complex 374-7, the Titan II Missile installation in nearby Damascus. Possibly a fuel leak.
It had happened before. Two years earlier, a trailer at Damascus leaked oxidizer, the component that mixes with rocket fuel to propel a rocket into space or toward a strategic target. This released a cloud of noxious gas, leaving a few people sick and eager to file lawsuits.
A socket like the one that punctured the missile’s hull.COURTESY OF DAVID STUMPF
But the site King and Phillips were driving to in their company Dodge Omni was worse. It turned out a worker doing routine maintenance on one of the missiles had dropped a nine-pound socket. This wasn’t the first time; in most instances, it hit the platform. But now, the socket fell all the way down the missile shaft—66 feet—bounced off the shaft mount ring, and hit the side of the missile, puncturing its eighth-inch hull. Fuel vapor started to fill the silo.
“The chances of all this happening were so remote,” David Stumpf, the author of Titan II: A History of a Cold War Missile Program, tells Popular Mechanics. “They tried to recreate it in an empty silo, and it bounced into the wall. It never bounced into the missile.”
King and Phillips arrived at the site at the same time as Van Buren County Sheriff Gus Anglin, and they were all greeted by military security personnel, who told them no evacuation of the area was necessary at that point. Meanwhile, as a countermeasure, the silo was filling with water to douse potential flames and dilute the vapor.
Police discussing evacuation plans after the explosion.FRANCOIS LOCHONGETTY IMAGES
King decided to hang around. He called the station, and word spread. Within a couple hours, there was a crowd of about 25 to 30 journalists and law enforcement personnel gathered just outside the gate.
Around 1 a.m. on September 19, they watched a helicopter and a bus full of people enter the base. There still wasn’t any official word about what was going on, but they all put on rocket fuel handler’s coverall outfits (RFHCO)—rubberized protective gear that resembled space suits—and walked to the silo, which had been filling with corrosive and potentially explosive vapor for hours.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID STUMPF
King remembers sitting on the hood of a sheriff’s car, aimlessly slipping his shoes on and off. “And around 3:05 a.m., all hell broke loose,” he tells Popular Mechanics.
If you saw footage from the massive explosion in Beirut this past August, King says, you saw what he saw that morning. The air turned white and chunks of steel-reinforced concrete fell out of the sky after the fuel ignited. After nearly being run over by the sheriff, King and Phillips jumped in their car and took off.
“We drove maybe 10 miles before we said anything to each other,” King recalls. I said, ‘We just left a bunch of dead people back there.’ He said ‘Yeah, I know.’ We were sick about it. All the guys that walked down with their RHFCO suits, I just assumed they were all killed.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID STUMPF
When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into space in 1957, it made the idea of long-range nuclear bombers obsolete. If a rocket could be launched into space, it could also be launched at something, and far faster than bombers could fly to targets to drop their payloads. If the Soviets had missiles, then the Americans needed them, too.
“The idea is no longer to win a nuclear war, but to prevent one from starting,” Chuck Penson, who recently retired as historian for the Titan Missile Museum in Arizona, tells Popular Mechanics. “That’s the idea of the Titan II. It was sitting there at a moment’s notice, and putting the enemy on notice that they couldn’t win the war.”
View of the nose of a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile sitting in its 150-foot deep underground launch pad at McConnell Air Force Base near Wichita, Kansas, circa 1965.HULTON ARCHIVEGETTY IMAGES
The first U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), like the Atlas and the Titan I, were cryogenically fueled, relying on substances like liquid oxygen, which had to be kept cold. It took about 15 minutes to load the fuel and move the Titan I into position before firing—not a great selling point when every second might count.
The Titan II, on the other hand, had a longer range and could be used for defense as well as for the nation’s nascent space program. “Titan II was developed as much for use in space flight as it was for an ICBM,” Stumpf says. It was used for the Gemini project, which launched men like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Jim Lovell into space in the 1960s.
Sequential photographs showing the launching of the Titan II ICBM weapon firing from underground silos, circa 1965.LAMBERTGETTY IMAGES
A total of 54 Titan II missiles, capable of going from launch to a target 8,000 miles away in about half an hour, were installed in Arizona, Kansas, and Arkansas. (Not coincidentally, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee at the time the missiles were installed was Arkansas Democrat Wilbur Mills.) Unlike its predecessor, the Titan II used hypergolic propellant, with fuel and oxidizer stored in the missile—at room temperature—and mixed to launch almost instantaneously.
Of course, that’s just as true on purpose as it is on accident.
Greg Devlin and his wife, Annette, in 1980.PHOTO COURTESY OF GREG DEVLIN
“The fuel’s so volatile, it could explode on its own,” Greg Devlin, who was a 21-year old Airman in the U.S. Air Force at Damascus on the night of the explosion, tells Popular Mechanics. “But we dealt with hydrazine [the fuel] and nitrogen tetroxide [the oxidizer] every day. We were so used to it that it didn’t scare us.”