A team of Air Force and government security officials, radiation experts and military divers converged on the Georgia coast Thursday to investigate the spot where a long-lost hydrogen bomb may be resting since it was dropped from a bomber in 1958.
The team dragged sensors in the water and the divers collected soil samples during the day-long search in Wassaw Sound, near the beach resort community of Tybee Island, where the Olympic sailing competition was held in 1996.
The bomb, a 7,600-pound Mark 15, which has been described as a hundred times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima, was intentionally jettisoned from a B-47 bomber after a midair collision with a jet fighter.
An intensive 90-day search conducted at the time failed to turn up any sign of the bomb, which has been officially listed as "irretrievably lost." Air Force officials have said that the bomb does not carry the plutonium needed for a nuclear blast but that it does carry 400 pounds of explosives.
Air Force officials said the current investigation will cover the area where a private group headed by Derek Duke, a retired Air Force pilot who lives nearby, recently detected high radiation in a football-field-size area in shallow water 12 miles east of Savannah.
But the officials said they were not searching for the bomb and instead were trying to verify the high radiation readings and determine whether they came from a natural source or from contamination and whether the contamination was caused by the missing bomb.
The investigation was undertaken "so that we can ensure the safety of the people of Savannah and Georgia is maintained," said Billy W. Mullins, an Air Force nuclear weapons adviser who headed up Thursday's investigation. "That has always been our priority."
Duke, who located the area using coordinates provided by the retired pilot of the B-47 bomber that jettisoned the bomb said he would not have given his information to government officials and urged them to undertake the current investigation "if I was not fairly certain" the bomb has been found.
During the past four years, Duke has repeatedly urged the government to conduct another search for the bomb to determine if it poses a danger to the Southeast coast.
Duke and several members of his private search team, including radiation detection expert Joe Eddlemon, who took the measurements the government is attempting to verify, went with the Air Force team Thursday.
Eddlemon, owner of Pulcir Inc. in Oak Ridge, Tenn., was previously employed at the nuclear facility there. He said his readings reflected 3,000 times the normal radiation around the spot where Duke believes the bomb is buried.
The bomb fell when the B-47 pilot, Air Force Col. Howard Richardson, dropped it over the water after his collision with a fighter jet during a training mission. He told Air Force officials he was afraid the bomb would break loose from his damaged plane when he attempted to land at Hunter Army Air Field in Savannah.
Richardson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for successfully landing the bomber.
The Air Force launched an extensive search that received wide attention at the time. But even as that search was underway, another plane from Hunter accidentally dropped another nuclear bomb. It fell on a farm near Florence, S.C., and though its nuclear components were not armed, the explosives in the bomb detonated on impact, creating a 30-foot-deep and 70-foot-wide crater.
It destroyed a farmer's home and injured the farmer and five members of his family. It also damaged several cars, five other houses and a church.
Air Force personnel recovered hundreds of bomb fragments during their blast site cleanup and inhabitants of the area were monitored for radiation exposure for several months after the explosion.
That incident relegated the bomb dropped near Tybee Island to a dim memory and occasional cocktail conversation on the island for more than 40 years.
Duke first became interested in the lost nuclear weapon four years ago when he spotted a reference to it on the Internet.
After studying information that included a recently declassified 1966 document prepared by then-Assistant Secretary of Defense for Atomic Energy W.J. Howard indicating the bomb was fully armed and capable of nuclear detonation, Duke approached Air Force officials urging them to either conduct another search with modern equipment or cover his expenses to conduct a search on his own.
The officials said the bomb posed little danger because it had only a low risk of leakage of the highly radioactive material it contains and should be left alone. In a report three years ago, the Air Force said the bomb was probably under 15 feet of mud in as much as 40 feet of water.
But Duke's latest radiation findings sparked new interest in the site from the Air Force and Thursday's search.