Ever since a cloud of toxic fumes and ash from the explosion at a Titan II missile silo five miles away hovered over Guy, Ark. (population 200) last Friday morning, a number of its residents have had trouble breathing.
At least 12 persons, including the mayor and fire chief, have complained of symptoms ranging from nausea and vomiting to stomach pains, fever, headaches and shortness of breath.
Benny Mercer, 39, the mayor, says he still cannot catch his breath. His son, Dwayne, 10, a fourth grader, stayed home from school Wednesday with nausea and vomiting. His daughter, Anna, 11, still has some lingering chest and stomach pain. As for his wife, Baisy, she stayed in bed Wednesday with diarrhea, sinus trouble and a sore throat.
"When you took a whiff of air, it burned your nose plumb down to your lungs," said Mercer, a disabled assembly worker, describing Friday's predawn fog. He walked into it when hewent out on his back porch soon after the missile silo erupted in a volcano of flame that killed one airman, injured 21 others and hurled a nuclear warhead 200 yards into a ditch. "It smelled like ammonia, or like someone had been shooting off firecrackers."
He walked back into the house. His lips and tongue started to "dry up." He still cannot get rid of the ammonia-like taste and is worried about the long-term effects of what feels like a bad case of the flu.
He says a number of residents have felt ill since the missile erupted. "All the families involved have the same symptoms, but some are worse than others," he says.
Mercer, Richard Kincaid, an IBM systems engineer, and George Poole, the volunteer fire chief, all complained Wednesday to Lt. Gen. Lloyd Leavitt, deputy commander of the Strategic Air Command at Little Rock Air Force Base, and found themselves whisked off to a base doctor.
They all "showed symptoms of having been exposed to combustible material," a base public information officer told The Washington Post yesterday. He attributed their symptoms to smoke or "toxic fumes," and said more medical tests were scheduled.
The Air Force refused to release results of the medical tests and denied that the health problems were caused by the explosion at the underground silo, which is just north of Damascus, Ark.
Kincaid said the base doctor told themen that "we had some inflammation in our lungs that might be caused by particles in the air like a dust storm or smoke inhalation."
The tiny town of Guy was just outside the five-mile ring evacuated following the blast. Embittered town officials said the Air Force "admitted they forgot us."
"I feel rotten -- nauseated, still got a sore throat," said Mercer, who worked on a school bus assembly line in nearby Conway before he hurt his back in March. "My wife is the same way, only she's got diarrhea real bad. My youngest son is having stomach pains. Some other families are running fever. We've still got a lot of people sick. I don't know how long it's going to last."
Kincaid, 42, was awakened by the 3 a.m. explosion and had to dial Omaha SAC headquarters to find out what was happening in his backyard. They put him on hold for 20 minutes.
"I was trying to see if we had any potential danger of a nuclear explosion or toxic gas," he said. "An official told me there was nothing for us to worry about, that they were only evacuating up to two miles from the site."
So far, state officials have no scientific evidence of any contamination of Guy. Gerald Southall, director of the state's Office of Pollution Control and Ecology, said his department had interviewed about six residents who complained of a metallic taste, sore throats and other symptoms. He said his department would continue to investigate. So far, he can't relate the symptoms to the explosion.
He said the fallout pattern of nitric oxide, debris and vegetation damage appears to be concentrated northwest of the site, while Guy lies to the southeast about five miles.
Surface winds were reported to be light and variable at the time away from Guy.
"I don't have any explanation for it," Southall said.
Historically, there have been cases of whole communities experiencing mass hypochondria and all manner of symptoms of illness following a nearby catastrophe. But the residents of Guy insist their symptoms are real. n
"I don't want to say anything to my family about the burning sensation in my chest because I didn't want to alarm them," said Kincaid. "Then later in the day [Friday], I did and my son said, 'Dad, I didn't want to bring it up, but I feel the same way.'"