News Of Near H-Bomb Explosion In N.C. Reignites Interest In Maryland Nuke Crash

5:28 PM, Sep 26, 2013   |    comments
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GARRETT CO, Md (WUSA) -- When newly declassified documents revealed this week that a hydrogen bomb nearly detonated in 1961 in a crash over North Carolina, one of our photojournalists dug another scary story from the depths of his memory.

Western Maryland, height of the Cold War, B-52 crashed in a blizzard -- two nukes on board.

At the crash site, nearly half a century later, if you move some earth around, you can still smell the jet fuel. You don't even have to dig to find pieces. The tire from one of the main landing gears still lies near a monument to one of three men who died in the crash. 

The Air Force left most of the wreckage of the B-52 in Frank Sgaggero's cattle field. He welcomes people stopping by and here's a link to a map if you want to see a bit of history.

"You can see it was stamped with the Boeing manufacture," says amateur historian Steve Johnson, picking up what looks like a strut. "This was a hydraulic actuator."

Security forces pulled out the two nuclear weapons and the body of the bombardier, Major Robert Townley, who couldn't bail out of the plane.

"He was out of his seat, when the incident occurred," says Johnson, who grew up nearby. "And the airplane started to tumble and it went inverted and he could get back in his seat to eject himself out."

Flight Buzz One 4 was returning to Georgia after a nuclear alert mission over Europe when it ran a huge blizzard over Western Maryland. The turbulence sheered off it's vertical fin and left the crew bailing out in the storm. The pilot and co-pilot survived, two others died of exposure, and Townley went down with the plane.

A farm wife nearby heard a huge rumble and saw a flash of light in the distance, which alerted neighbors to the crash and set off a massive hunt for survivors. "Hundreds of people out looking for him," says Johnson of one of the men who died of exposure, "And one boy found him walking home. Unfortunately he'd already died."

Johnson keeps a big scrapbook of newspaper clippings and and photographs. 

He still recalls as a 10-year-old when the Air Force brought the bombs off the mountain. "I remember asking my dad, he said, 'Yeah, that's the bomb son.' Cause they had explosives (on a sign) on the back."

"They laid mattresses down," on flatbed trucks, and put the nukes on them, says Sgaggero. "Strapped them down and drove them out of here."

Three crashes, 14 deaths over three years all caused by the same weak bulkhead in the tail of the massive B-52.  

But the Western Maryland crash did mark a turning point. 

A few years later, the Air Force quit flying airborne alert. And the tail design on B-52 was changed to reduce the odds of catastrophic failure.

The nukes in North Carolina were one fail-safe from detonation.
The bombs in Maryland, on the other hand, were neither armed nor ready.

Steve Johnson says the worst that could have happened is that the fire after the crash would have set off the high explosives and sent radioactive material spewing across the countryside.
Luckily, the Strategic Air Command secured the weapons still intact.

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