It all began when a repairman at the site used the wrong wrench. Two missile-maintenance men went down into the silo to fix a problem involving low pressure in one of missile’s fuel tanks. They left behind the torque wrench that was prescribed by the regulations and used a socket wrench instead. As the two men were tightening a bolt, the socket detached from the wrench and fell 70 feet, bounced off the wall of the silo, and punctured a tank filled with 14,000 gallons of rocket fuel.
None of the technicians in the missile’s control room knew what to do. As one of them put it, an accident of this kind “wasn’t on the checklist.” The fuel burst into flames and filled the silo with dense smoke that made it hard to even see what was going on. Hours later, after several courageous attempts to fix the problem, the missile exploded and its warhead was ejected. Two men died as a result of the blast. And at first no one knew where the warhead had gone. The next day it was found in a ditch near the site.
It was no ordinary warhead. If it had gone off it would have unleashed more explosive power than all the bombs dropped by all sides in World War II, including the two atomic bombs. The blast would have killed millions of people. The fact that the bomb did not go off was as much by luck as by design.
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