John Stacks still gets periodic excruciating headaches since a 1978 toxic leak from the Titan II missile site just over the hill from his dairy farm.
He has been in and out of hospitals from Arkansas to Washington, D.C., for inconclusive neurologic tests. And though he can still work if he doesn't exert himself too much, his wife, Beverly, says he is a "different person" than the man she married.
"He was always easygoing, but right after the accident, he'd say things like, 'I'll knock your head off,' or, 'Pack your bag and get out.' He was taking a lot of medication for the pain. Even now, you can make him angry. Before the 1978 accident, nothing could.
John and Beverly Stacks are among the dozen or so families who live within shouting distance of the Titan II missile silo that erupted in an explosion Friday morning, killing one airman, injuring 21 others and forcing the Stacks and 1,400 residents of nearby towns to evacuate.
About 75 Air Force personnel continued mop-up operations around the silo today, and three flatbed trailers rumbled onto the site, one with a bulldozer, another with equipment resembling a crane. Air Force police with M16s patrolled the gate and officials continued to stonewall all questions about a nuclear warhead while they reassured residents that no danger from radioactivity or fuel contamination existed.
John Stacks is not easily reassured.
Stacks, 25, a short, stocky farmer with reddish hair, was up at 3:30 a.m. today to milk his 200 prize Holsteins, just as he was Jan. 27, 1978, when the Titan II silo poured toxic nitrogen tetroxide fumes into the rolling Ozark foothills
He saw the reddish-orange cloud coming his way, but wrote it off as a neighbor's brush fire. It smelled like rotten eggs. After he had worked in the fumes for 3 1/2 hours, a neighbor warned him that the area was being evacuated. Within days, 16 head of cattle died; 40 more had to be slaughtered.
For a time, no one wanted to do business with Stacks. "My customers stopped buying cattle from me," said Stacks, slapping a fat black-and-white Holstein from his milking parlor this morning. "The bank in Weslie, Ark., wouldn't loan a man money to buy my cows. I had to give one man his $700 back when the cow I sold him died."
Stacks, who refinanced his small general store to pay off his debts, says he was saved by the rising price of dairy cattle and has gone on to earn $100,000 a year from his breeding operation.
Nevertheless, ever since the leak, Stacks and Barton Williams, 49, a hired hand who worked alongside him that morning, have suffered from headaches and respiratory problems, making them members of a small but angry class of Americans who have filed damage suits against the federal government over Titan II accidents.
In a $2.6 million lawsuit filed last year in federal court, Stacks charges that the government failed to maintain missile equipment properly and failed to detect and contain the leak in a reasonable amount of time. The suit also contends that the Air Force took too long to evacuate the area.
In his suit for $800,000, Williams who owns 10 acres down the road, named four firms that made the storage trailer from which the missile's oxidizing agent escaped: Martin Marietta Corp., Cosmodyne Inc., United Electronic Controls and Fluoro Carbon Co. Inc.
Similar lawsuits were filed in Wichita, Kan., after a Titan II missile oxidizer leak in 1978.
Stacks says the Air Force promised to compensate him for lost time and dead cattle -- autopsies on several animals revealed collapsed lungs -- but after a government claims adjuster scoffed at his $4,500 claim, he decided to sue. "The Air Force acted as if I had made the whole thing up," he said.
"I have about had it, emotionally and physically," said Beverly Stacks, who drove to a pasture today with her husband and their three-year-old son, Courtney, to examine a twisted heap of metal that landed Friday morning. She said she was exhausted from taking her husband to hospitals in the middle of the night for pain shots "more times than I can count."
Thursday night seemed like a flashback. A deputy sheriff knocked on the door and said, "It's just like the last time. The Air Force won't tell us a thing except, 'Evacuate.'" John was working in a milking shed several miles away and couldn't be reached. Her first thought was, "If he gets another dose of fumes, he'll die." She bundled up the children and sent John's father to find him.
The explosion Friday morning came without warning, a rain of concrete and steel followed by "a glare and balls of fire that shook the whole house," said Stacks, who watched it from his father's window. "We didn't know if it was all over or not."
Stacks wouldn't mind moving a few miles farther away from the missile site, but doubts anyone would buy his farm now. He says he's too entrenched in business to give up Damascus altogether.
As for the Soviets turning his backyard into eternity, Stacks says, "If it comes to that, whether you're in Arkansas or Washington, you'll be in trouble."