Sunday, November 17, 2013

An Oh Sh%t Moment In Eureka

This may be the most startling roadside historical marker you'll ever see in North Carolina. We passed it yesterday on Al Pacer's Pacer 200 permanent, which runs from Zebulon to Greenville, NC. The sign is at the halfway mark in Eureka. I mean, EUREKA!

Aside from the very cool name and the adopted nuclear family, Eureka is like a hundred other small towns in North Carolina, with boarded-up businesses on the main street and convenience stores anchoring the corners and a collection of junked construction vehicles and cranes at the local salvage yard, just outside the town limits, and a few charming wood frame homes on the side streets.

I've been here before. Buddy Dan did his first ever century to that town so he could finish up and shout "Eureka!" Except he was too tired to do much shouting. But the town is good for those kinds of moments.

Back to that historical marker. You can tell it was written by a committee and edited by some boss up the food chain. Crisis averted? That doesn't really do justice to what happened about a half century ago. The sign should read: HOLY CRAP! WE JUST ABOUT GOT VAPORIZED!

The story began when a B-52, in distress and heading to the nearby Air Force base in Goldsboro, disintegrated in mid air and fell out of the sky while carrying two nuclear warheads, crashing into a nearby tobacco field. Three of eight crew members lost their lives, with several ejecting to safety. The crash site is actually in nearby Faro, but Faro is just a road and a turkey farm or two, so Eureka got the sign.

The "two thermonuclear bombs each had enough power to leave a crater a third of a mile wide and exterminate all living things within 8.5 miles of its ground zero."  And guess what? One of the damned things was a jostle and a bump away from exploding. Here's more from Wiki:
Three of the four arming mechanisms on one of the bombs activated, causing it to execute many of the steps needed to arm itself, such as charging the firing capacitors and, critically, deployment of a 100-foot-diameter (30 m) retard parachute. The parachute allowed that bomb to hit the ground with little damage....
The second bomb plunged into a muddy field at around 700 miles per hour (310 m/s) and disintegrated without detonation of its conventional explosives. The tail was discovered about 20 feet (6.1 m) below ground. Parts of the bomb were recovered, including its tritium bottle and the plutonium.
According to nuclear weapons historian Chuck Hansen, the bomb was partially armed when it left the aircraft though an unclosed high-voltage switch had prevented it from fully arming. In 2013, Lt. Jack Revelle, the bomb disposal expert responsible for disarming the device, recalled the moment the second bomb's switch was found. “Until my death I will never forget hearing my sergeant say, 'Lieutenant, we found the arm/safe switch.' And I said, 'Great.' He said, 'Not great. It’s on arm.'"
Excavation of the second bomb was abandoned as a result of uncontrollable ground-water flooding. Most of the thermonuclear stage, containing uranium, was left in situ. The Army Corps of Engineers purchased a 400 feet (120 m) circular easement over the buried component. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill determined the buried depth of the secondary component to be 180 feet (55 m), plus or minus 10 feet (3.0 m).
So basically, there's still a nuke buried out there under the cotton field.

In September, the Guardian newspaper published declassified documents that showed we were one faulty switch away from a nuclear catastrophe.

The official essay about the Eureka marker is worth a read.

And there you have it. Eureka: the little town with one of the most celebrated "oh shit!" moments in history. And with a nuclear bomb buried in its backyard to back up the claim... Eureka! Widespread disaster averted....

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