Monday January 17th 1966 began sunny in the little fishing village of Palomares in south-east Spain. Long before the arrival of mass tourism, in a backward country still ruled by Franco, locals scratched a living growing tomatoes in the dust of Europe’s only desert, or from fishing the warm, clear Mediterranean water. At ground level, donkey was still the usual mode of transport for most farmers, but 31,000 feet above them, some of the most sophisticated technology ever created was being delicately manoeuvred. The seven-man crew of a 220-ton, US Air Force B-52 Stratofortress, laden with nuclear weapons, was approaching the last leg of a 24-hour mission, looking forward to returning to their base in North Carolina. Before crossing the Atlantic they had to refuel from another 220-ton behemoth, a KC-125 Stratotanker carrying 30,000 tons of high-octane aviation fuel Radio Spain.
In 1966 the Cold War was at its chilliest. Just four years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US and USSR were managing to limit conflict to third world battlegrounds like Vietnam, but both secretly feared the other might launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike at any time. Until ground-launched intercontinental missiles were capable of hitting the Soviet Union, the US Strategic Air Command (SAC) relied on Operation Chrome Dome; a fleet of nuclear bombers continually patrolling the borders of the Soviet Union. As SAC commander General Power warned the soviets: “Day and night I have a certain percentage of my command in the air. The planes are bombed up, and they don’t carry bows and arrows.”
Three pilots took shifts aboard the B-52. Senior among them was 44-year-old Major Larry Messinger, heavy bomber veteran of 70 combat sorties during World War II and Korea, where he had shown himself to be cool under attack from either Messerschmidt or MiG. Among the four-man Stratotanker crew were two more WWII veterans, both the pilot and boom operator. Yet as Major Messinger manoeuvred his aircraft underneath the belly of the tanker, something went disastrously wrong: “We came in behind the tanker,” Messinger told a later enquiry, “and we were a little bit fast and started to overrun him. The procedure in refuelling is that if the boom operator feels you’re getting too close and are in danger he will call ‘break away break away break away.’ There was no call for a break away so we didn’t see anything dangerous about the situation. All of a sudden all hell seemed to break loose.”
Whether as a result of turbulence or pilot error – the enquiry apportioned no blame – the tanker’s refuelling boom ripped into the B-52, effectively tearing it in two, ripping off a wing and sending the bomber to earth in pieces. The tanker went into a tailspin too, as fire spread up the boom. Inside the several pieces of B-52 plummeted towards the little Spanish village, the crew made a desperate attempt to bail out. Four succeeded in ejecting. For Major Messinger, everything went blank: “I must have hit my head on the way out, because as I came too I wasn’t quite with it. I was tumbling through the air, and though I knew that the chute would automatically open at 14,000 feet, I pulled the ripcord right away. That was the wrong thing to do at 30,000 feet and I started drifting out to sea and towards Africa.” Another airmen’s parachute failed to open at all. The Spanish villager who found the body still strapped into the ejector seat, said he had, “all the horrors of the world mirrored in his face”.
Two of the crew never made it out of the plane, while another leapt through a hole in the fuselage and landed safely by parachute. No-one survived in the tanker, which exploded just before landing in the cemetery in Palomares. Huge chunks of aircraft miraculously missed schools and village houses. The five-year-old daughter of Maria Badillo ran into her house screaming “Mama, the sky is raining fire.” Bizarrely, five of the dead airmen landed in the village cemetery; the other two were about 100 yards away.
But what of the payload? Each of the four 1.45 megaton B28RI nuclear weapons aboard the B-52 had the destructive power of 1.5 million tons of TNT. Put together this was a combined fire-power of 400 times the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Had they detonated they would have destroyed most of southern Spain and the coast of Morocco. Millions of people would have been killed, the historic cities of Granada, Malaga and Alicante would have been erased, and tidal waves would have ripped across the Mediterranean.
However, the bombs had many safety features built in. A nuclear bomb is comprised of a core of plutonium shaped like a melon, a larger chunk of uranium and a small amount of heavy hydrogen atoms. There is also a quantity of conventional explosive, like TNT. Only when the bomb has been armed by the pilot does it all become really dangerous. Then, the conventional explosive causes a shockwave, which squeezes the plutonium, which leads to fission, a thermonuclear reaction that creates its own small star, many times hotter than the centre of the sun. However, until they are deliberately armed, even the ignition of the conventional explosive won’t create the precise requirements for nuclear fission. At least in theory, and previous accidents had shown that the bombs were far from foolproof.
On two of the bombs the parachutes intended to slow their landing failed to open. One crashed into a tomato field, the other into the cemetery. Both went deep into the ground and the conventional explosives detonated. Though there was no nuclear fission, the craters were 20 feet across and plutonium was scattered as dust – effectively creating a ‘dirty bomb’, though there were no subsequent reports of ill health in the local community. The third bomb’s parachute deployed and it landed gently on the beach.
Back at SAC headquarters near Omaha it was still 3.30 in the morning, but news of the disaster was radioed home from a following plane before the wreckage of the B-52 even hit the ground. President Johnson was awoken with the news of a ‘broken arrow’ – military code for a lost nuke. By the time the news broke in the Spanish press, the three bombs had already been located and a massive search begun for the fourth.
At first it was feared that the bomb had gone straight into the sand and would never be found. But another witness to the tragedy, five miles off the coast of Palomares, was local shrimp fisherman Francisco Simó Orts, who had watched as six parachutes approached the water. One appeared to have a dead man attached to it. As the surviving airmen climbed into their inflatable rafts, the ‘dead man’ rapidly sank below the squally waves. When news of the lost bomb hit the news, Orts realised just what had nearly landed on him.
There is a Hollywood version of what happened next, but it isn’t quite true. Men of Honor stars Cuba Gooding Jnr as Navy diver Carl Brashear, son of a southern sharecropper who overcomes racism and a poor education to become the first ever black Navy diver. In the film, he finds the fourth bomb after being dragged along the seabed by a Russian submarine, and loses his leg in the recovery. In reality, the bomb was at 2,800 feet, about eight times deeper than a diver could operate. It was actually found by a manned submersible, perched precariously above a trench 3,900 feet deep, after a massive search by 34 vessels. In the subsequent recovery operation, Brashear did indeed lose a leg, and the crew of the submersible were nearly lost when their craft became entangled in the parachute. But on April 7, 81 days after the accident, the bomb was brought to the surface.
Damage may have been insignificant compared to the Armageddon that could have occurred, but there was fall out nevertheless. The first casualty was to Nato defence, as Spain closed off its air space. In any case, the US military had taken the hint and cancelled Chrome Dome soon after, relying instead on submarine-mounted missiles. Major Messinger returned to the US and though never officially blamed for the accident, was held up for promotion. He is still alive, aged 86 in Florida, and still protesting that the accident wasn’t his fault.
The US sent a massive clear up team that removed tons of potentially contaminated topsoil. Faced with a choice of keeping it safe in Spain until the radioactive risk dissipated, calculated at 124,000 years, they shipped the topsoil back to the US and buried it in South Carolina. To show how safe everything was, the US ambassador and his family went swimming with the Spanish ministry of tourism at Palomares. The US government also donated a desalination plant. Francisco Simó Ort, now nicknamed Paco de la Bomba, claimed in a New York court that the bomb was valued at $2billion, and according to international maritime custom he was entitled to salvage of one per cent of the value, or $20 million. The navy settled out of court. Carl Brashear now began a new battle, ultimately successfully, to become the US Navy’s first one-legged diver, just like in the film. He died in 2006 a national hero.