Yep, We Nearly Blew Up North Carolina

1961 blast could've had 260 times the power of that in Hiroshima

By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff

Posted Jun 12, 2014 9:48 AM CDT

(Newser) – A part of North Carolina came dangerously close to being obliterated in 1961. A newly declassified report discusses a US bomber that broke in half while flying over the state in January of that year, causing the two nuclear bombs it was carrying to plummet to the ground near Goldsboro—and reveals that those bombs came much closer to detonation than was previously known. A parachute opened for one of the bombs, which landed intact; the safing pins that conducted power from a generator had been pulled, preventing a blast. Still, it completed five of the six steps to detonation, Fox News reports. Had two cockpit wires touched as the plane disintegrated, it could have exploded. As for the second bomb, it landed in a freefall, which caused the switch to flip to the "armed" position, RT reports.

What kept it from going off? "The shock also damaged the switch contacts, which had to be intact for the weapon to detonate," the National Security Archive's Bill Burr explains. The incident was first mentioned in a book by Eric Schlosser last year, but the report confirms just how close the US came to devastation. As CNN points out, the MK39 bombs had an explosive yield of 3.8 megatons; the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were 0.01 and 0.02 megatons, respectively. "There would have been a 100% kill zone for 8.5 miles in every direction," said the Air Force weapons specialist tasked with disarming the bombs. "By the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted," Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said at the time. (This scientist's mathematical model could help you survive should a nuclear bomb strike.)

In this Aug. 6, 1945 file photo released by the U.S. Army, a mushroom cloud billows about one hour after a nuclear bomb was detonated above Hiroshima, Japan.   (AP Photo/U.S. Army via Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, HO, File)
In this Aug. 9, 2007 file photo, B-52 bombers start taxiing to the runway for a rapid-launch exercise with eight planes from Minot Air Force Base, N.D.   (AP Photo/The Daily News, Eloise Ogden, File)
In this Aug. 6, 1945 file photo released by the U.S. Army, a mushroom cloud billows about one hour after a nuclear bomb was detonated above Hiroshima, Japan.   (AP Photo/U.S. Army via Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, HO, File)
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