Air Force Secretary Hans Mark's presentation to a House committee Wednesday outlining the Titan missile accident of Damascus, Ark., followed a line familiar to anyone who has studied the Pentagon's attempts to explain an earlier Titan tragedy.
That accident took place Aug. 24, 1978, at Rock, Kan. There, a major oxidizer spill killed two airmen, sent 29 to the hospital, and so damaged the missile silo that it has yet to be put back into operation.
Two themes emerged after the Rock incident, and they could be heard clearly in Mark's testimony Wednesday. They were:
To blame human error rather than failed parts of the aging Titan missile system.
To play down the danger to airmen exposed to the lethal fuel and oxidizer vapors.
At Rock, two airmen wearing safety suits and helmets were sprayed with oxidizer while disconnecting a hose at the base of the missle after refilling the oxidizer tank. The oxidizer covered their face plates and neither was able to see. They called for help on the radio systems built into their suits while the oxidizer continued to pour out of the missle.
According to the two-inch-thick, official Air Force "Report of Missle Accident Investigation" obtained by The Washington Post, the following system failures occurred:
Communications over the radio system between the trapped men, the missle crew (located in an underground control room separate from the silo) and the fuel team above ground at the site "deteriorated" after the screams for help "to the extend that only bits and pieces of words could be understood." For "an undetermined time period," the report says, several officers and airmen tried unsuccessfully to talk at once. The result was that for a key period no one knew what was happening.
When the fuel team chief arrived at the silo to go inside to aid his men, the only safety suit available was an old one with cracks and a limited amount of oxygen.
An airman at the silo was sent above ground to get additional safety suits and oxygen "but there were none available."
A blast door leading from the silo entry area to the control center where the crew was located failed to open.
Two airmen above ground put on oxygen canisters and masks to go down the silo elevator to pick up the exposed men. The masks failed to keep out the oxidizer vapors and the men had to jump out after they had descended only three feet into the silo area. They then sent the elevator down alone by lodging a rock in the control switch.
The communications override, a transmitter in the control center operated by the missile site commander, failed to work so that talk over the radio system could not be controlled.
When the missile crew and two exposed airmen got to the surface through the control room escape hatch, the emergency shower needed to wash the oxidizer from their suits and bodies was not connected.
Two other airmen attempted to enter the silo, after two of the exposed airmen left, to retrieve the fuel team chief who was dead. One airman had to return because his safety suit leaked; the other turned back because his suit did not permit him enough air to breathe.
Another airman tried to go down into the silo and found his helmet leaked.
When still another group finally reached the dead airman in the control center, they carried him to the elevator but could not get it to work. Then they had to carry him up and out through the emergency exit.
Despite all these failures, however, the accident report placed primary blame on the fuel team chief, Sgt. Robert J. Thomas. He had failed, the investigation found, to order the use of a filter during the oxidizer transfer. iThat failure, the board said, permitted a tiny rubber ring to lodge itself in a valve, permitting the leak.
The naming of Thomas caused bitterness among the fuel teams servicing the Titan missiles in Kansas.
On the day of the accident, the missle site commander and the wing commander had recommended a posthumous medal for Thomas, who lost his life trying to save his two men. The medal was never approved after the accident board put the blame for the incident on him. The Air Force also has consistently battled attempts of the missile crewmen to link medical problems they have today to their exposure to oxidizer vapors during the Rock incident. Several of the air policemen, who complained of headaches and nausea that persisted for more than a year, were sent for long periods of examination in an Air Force mental ward before they were given medical discharges.
Air Force Secretary Mark on Wednesday showed the same reluctance to link the death of Sgt. David Livingston at Damascus to inhalation of the fuel vapors to which he was exposed.
When questioned after the hearing about Livingston's physician saying that death was due to lung collapse caused by inhalation of the vapor, Mark countered that that was not what he had been told and added that as far as he knew the vapor could not get through the safety suit the airman was wearing.
Livingston's doctor said last week that he was told the suit did not keep out vapor in the concentrations that Livingston faced, a view echoed by the vice commander of the Strategic Air Command, Lt. Gen. Richard Leavitt, who told reporters last Saturday that Livingston had been told to leave the silo if the vapor registered too high on his safety device, since the suit would not protect him in such levels.