A 9-megaton nuclear warhead in a container labeled "Do Not Drop" rumbled out of the devastated Titan II missile site here today on a flatbed truck and was delivered safely to Little Rock Air Force Base.
Pentagon sources said that the warhead was dented when it struck something either when it was catapulted out of the silo in Friday's explosion and fire or when it landed in a ditch. Otherwise, they said, the warhead was undamaged and no radiation leaked.
The cargo of two 12-foot-long lead containers rolled across a cattle guard and out of the silo area just north of town at 7:35 a.m. with much fanfare.
Escorted by state highway patrol and Air Force security trucks with flashing blue lights, an eight-vehicle convoy arrived about 90 minutes later at the base in Jacksonville, 60 miles away.
An Air Force helicopter whirred overhead as the convoy passed school buses on a narrow two-lane blacktop road and maneuvered through the heavy early morning traffic in north Little Rock.
John Fullerton, operation supervisor for the state office of emergency services and a retired Air Force nuclear weapons maintenance officer, said that an Air Force official at the scene Friday had "assured me that the warhead had been found about 250 yards away" from the site of Friday's explosion of toxic missile fuel which killed one airman, injured 21 others and forced the evacuation of 1,400 rural residents here. The warhead "had not been ruptured. There was no contamination," he was told.
Fullerton, who retired in 1971 from the Air Force, where he conducted investigations of accidents involving aircraft with nuclear weapons aboard, spent Friday at the accident site watching Air Force inspectors spectors and health officials go over emerging vehicles, equipment and people with their radiation gear. "I watched the meters and there was nothing but [harmless] background readings," Fullerton said.
From aerial photographs taken after the accident, Fullerton said, he identified what he believed to be the warhead about 250 yards from the silo. "It's a fairly bulky piece of equipment about eight feet long and six feet in diameter about the size of a butane gas tank behind a house." The canisters carried from the site by the truck this morning fit the description.
Ever since the explosion was triggered Thursday evening by a workman dropping a three-pound socket wrench and puncturing a fuel tank, the question of the missing warhead has concerned Damascus residents, who feared a radiation leak.
An unidentified viewer provided a local television station with a tape recording of a conversation monitored the morning after the explosion between the one-scene silo commander and part of his rescue team. A portion of the tape apparently refers to the warhead:
" . . . It's laying in a ditch beside, you know, it's not even up close, it flew out. It's laying in a ditch. It's all exposed and, uh, all we need to do is go in and get it . . . it's laying out there, we're just concerned about the airplane flying over, taking pictures. Uh, should we go cover it with tarp?"
An Air Force official at the site notified state police of plans to move the warhead just before 7 a.m. today, about a half-hour before the convoy pulled out. "We're going to make a move at 7:30," an airman at the scene told state police, according to state trooper Daryle Rose. "That's normal procedure with a missile movement."
Fullerton said he didn't see what all the fuss over moving the warhead was about. "The big event took place Friday morning when the fuel exploded," he told The Washington Post in an interview this afternoon. "Everything else is anticlimatctic. Everything that is going to happen happened when the fuel and oxidizer blew up. Now it's just a matter of running the warhead through the maintenance depot to test all the components."
Such warheads are encased in the missile nonecone, whose rugged construction allows it to "sustain the shocks of reentry into the atmosphere," Fullerton said. "On Friday it performed its function. It protected the warhead. And there's no way you can get a nuclear [explosion] from a weapon except with a normal launch sequence and proper arming and firing. It's designed to be fail-safe. It's just not going to go off otherwise."
An Air Force investigating team continued to evaluate data gleaned from the site and interview menbers of the maintenance crew that suffered casualties in the 3 a.m. Friday eruption of toxic fuels. That explosion turned the Titan II missile silo into rubble. Investigators will present findings on the cause of the explosion to higher authorities in a confidential report, said Air Force officials.
Sgt. David Livington, 22, of Health Ohio, died from pulmonary complications suffered in the explosion. Four airmen remained hospitalized Monday night.
Sgt. Jeff Kennedy, who entered the silo with Livingston moments before the explosion to check the toxic vapor concentration, was upgraded from critical to serious condition today at the Baptist Medical Center in Little Rock. Three other airmen were reported to be in satisfactory condition at the Little Rock Air Force base hospital.
Two other Air Force sergeants injured in the blast spoke emotionally about their efforts to rescue the injured men. "Our radio went out and we thought we were the only two left alive," said Sgt. Donald Green.
Sgt. Jimmy Roberts, choking back tears in a Sunday interview, said he found Livingston in the burning rubble after hearing his plea for help over the radio.
His gas mask on, Robert went door to door to warn nearby residents to evacuate. One man pulled a gun on him and ordered him off his property, he said. "You wake someone up at 3 a.m. with a gas on, you can't expect him to welcome you."