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Nuclear bomb nearly detonated over North Carolina, declassified report says

A nuclear explosion at the Nevada Test Site in 1953. (Photo courtesy the National Nuclear Security Administration)

There are few things in this world that can change the course of history faster than a nuclear bomb exploding. The devastation is immediate and lasts for years.

That makes the latest details to emerge about a Jan. 24, 1961, incident involving two nuclear bombs all the more jarring. A B-52 bomber broke up in the sky over North Carolina, and one of the two bombs on board was in the “armed” setting by the time it hit the ground near Goldsboro, N.C., according to a newly declassified report published Monday by the National Security Archive. If the switch had not been damaged by the impact of the crash, the weapon could have detonated, the report said.

The so-called “Goldsboro incident” received widespread attention in the fall, when details about the incident were published in a new book, “Command and Control,” by Eric Schlosser. And it sounds just as ominous as described Monday by Bill Burr of the National Security Archives.

“The report implied that because Weapon 2 landed in a free-fall, without the parachute operating, the timer did not initiate the bomb’s high voltage battery (“trajectory arming”), a step in the arming sequence,” Burr wrote. “For Weapon 2, the Arm/Safe switch was in the “safe” position, yet it was virtually armed because the impact shock had rotated the indicator drum to the “armed” position. But the shock also damaged the switch contacts, which had to be intact for the weapon to detonate.”

Burr concluded:

“Perhaps this is what Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had in mind, a few years later, when he observed that, ‘by the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.'”

Three U.S. Air Force personnel in the B-52 died after the plane broke up that day. They were Sgt. Francis Roger Barnish, Maj. Eugene Holcombe Richards, and Maj. Eugene Shelton.