Today’s date, January 24, was almost a day of tragedy in American history that would have ranked right up there, or even surpassed, December 7 and September 11. Fifty-three years ago today, on January 24, 1961, a U.S. Air Force B-52 fell out of the sky near Goldsboro, North Carolina. It happened to be carrying two nuclear weapons. They almost detonated. Had even one of them done so, a 2.4 megaton nuclear explosion would have wiped North Carolina off the map, potentially killing millions. Needless to say the world would never have been the same again.

The B-52 that crashed that day was part of the Strategic Air Command’s Cold War strategy, where one-third of the U.S.’s nuclear bombers were airborne at any moment of the day in case the Soviet Union launched a sneak nuclear attack. The problem with this particular plane was a leaky fuel tank in the starboard wing. Essentially, the plane ran out of gas in midair. The crew of eight bailed out, but only five survived. The plane itself broke up below 10,000 feet, and the nukes in its bomb bay began to fall to earth.

Needless to say there’s not much you can do with a nuclear bomb that’s falling out of an airplane except pray that it doesn’t go off. The parachute on the first bomb deployed, causing it to land in a tree, but when military recovery crews found it, five of the six steps it needed to arm itself had been completed–only the “safe/arm” switch prevented it from going off. This bomb was recovered. The second bomb was even scarier. Plowing into the ground, it required excavation to reach–and when the “safe/arm” switch of this bomb was found, it was in the “arm” position. Only an unclosed high voltage switch prevented it from being armed when it fell out of the plane.

goldsboro disaster

The Air Force did their best to recover the bomb that fell out of the B-52 in January 1961. The bad news was “their best” wasn’t good enough.

As it turned out the bomb detail that reached this second weapon couldn’t recover its uranium core due to groundwater flooding hampering the recovery efforts. Instead the Army put a big concrete cap over the site. Thus, the core of a nuclear weapon is still down there, 180 feet under a farm field in Faro, North Carolina. That is extremely disconcerting.

The consequences of the bomb going off are almost unimaginable. It certainly would have altered the entire course of the Cold War. With millions dead, there may have been political pressure in the United States for unilateral nuclear disarmament. How the Soviets would have responded to that is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the world would have been more peaceful after 1961, or perhaps less. This is one of those nightmare scenarios that is almost too scary to think about for very long.

Nuclear weapons have been inherently problematic since the day the first one was used. Aside from the very deep moral questions they raise, there is a legitimate question of whether or not, even if they’re never used in warfare, human beings are even capable of handling them safely. Accidents happen in every field of human endeavor. But the consequences of a nuclear accident are so disastrous that you almost have to guarantee there will be no accidents, ever–something the Goldsboro crash reminds us is an impossibility. With the end of the Cold War I’m not sure that I feel any more reassured that we’re really safe from the possibility of something like this happening again. Judgment Day is a staple of science fiction, but we must pray it never becomes reality.