New Bern, NC – Fifty years ago this week, a B-52 bomber crashed in a field near Goldsboro. The plane was carrying two nuclear bombs when it broke up in mid-air, dropping its nuclear payload in the process. The aircraft was on a 24-hour "Coverall" airborne alert mission on the Atlantic seaboard. During a mid-air refueling around midnight on January 23rd, 1961, the tanker crew advised the B-52 captain that his aircraft had a leak in its port wing fuel cell. The refueling was broken off and the aircraft was directed to land immediately at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. As it descended through 10,000 feet, the pilots were unable to control the plane and ordered the crew to eject.
"real loud noise, like a noise you couldn't imagine. The whole sky was lit up, it looked like the whole world was ablaze."
Billy Reeves, who then lived in the small farming community of Faro remembers he and his family going outside to investigate the crash. The local fire department was first on the scene and started evacuating the surrounding homes.
"my dad was volunteer fire department here... they did what they could...the Airforce came and told everyone "Leave. Leave. Leave. You don't know how dangerous it is."
It wasn't until three days later Reeves or his family knew about the two nuclear bombs.
"one was hanging back at my house in a tree. I didn't see it personally because I was gone. It's not hard to remember 50 years when you're scared to death."
The wreckage covered a 2-square-mile area of tobacco and cotton farmland about 12 miles north of Goldsboro. In a narrative released from the Pentagon, structural failure of the right wing resulted in two weapons separating from the aircraft during aircraft breakup at 2,000 - 10,000 feet altitude. One bomb parachute deployed and the weapon received little impact damage. However, the other bomb fell free and broke apart upon impact. Traveling close to the speed of sound, it plunged into a muddy field and sank about 50 feet below ground. Dr. Jack ReVelle was with the Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit that responded to the B-52 crash. His job was to recover the remains of the disintegrated bomb.
"it didn't take us long before we knew we'd have to use heavy machinery. We found the parachute pack, we found high explosives. The further we dug the more we found."
But after digging some 20 feet down, the hole began filling with water from a nearby Swamp.
"we hit the waterline. We're pumping water out and digging the hole deeper. If we weren't able to pump the water, we would have never found this stuff."
After eight days of digging, local officials dismissed the crew and they returned home. Too busy while on the job to think about the circumstances, it was only once he got home he realized he'd been removing a nuclear bomb.
"I sit down at the kitchen table to write my mom and dad where I've been and I see my hand start to shake... yeah, because you suddenly realize where you've been and what you've been doing."
Fortunately, no explosions occurred. But what would have happened if the bomb went off?
"oh, you'd have a Bay of North Carolina if that thing had gone."
A blast from a ground-level detonation would have left a crater in the ground a third of a mile wide and leveled homes more than five miles away, while the heat would have set fires and inflicted third-degree burns to a distance of nine miles from the point of detonation.
Jared: "how close was it to exploding?" ReVelle: "you're asking my opinion?" Jared: "I'm asking your opinion." ReVelle: "my opinion is damn close."
Controversy surrounds the issue of how close the bomb was to going off. The Pentagon claims that there was no chance of an explosion and that two switches didn't activate. However, most people believe the pilot's safe/arm switch was the only one of six arming devices on the bomb that prevented detonation. Despite the fact the military claims to have recovered many components of the nuclear weapon, some believe there's still a bomb in the ground. To this day, the U.S. government collects water samples from 50-foot wells near the site of the crash. Some Faro residents like Billy Reeves aren't convinced that the bomb that buried itself in the earth didn't bring consequences to their community.
"We did a water study because we had some people who developed cancer and died. We wanted to know if that was a possibility. But they only checked the well water. They didn't go down to where the bomb is actually located."
This week, a flag was raised at the site to remember the three lives that were lost in the crash. Adam Mattocks is one of the surviving B-52 crew members, and the only person still alive today. He was in attendance at the 50-year reunion ceremony held at the Faro Volunteer Fire Department Tuesday evening. Mattocks remembers the tense moments when the captain ordered everyone to eject.
"When he said bailout, I was pinned to the floor because of the positive Gs. I started to black out. When my sight came back, I saw the aircraft commander eject."
While the plane was gyrating out of control, he believes a change in G-forces helped him exit from the airplane through a hatch on the ceiling.
"I didn't want to open my parachute and the plane run thru it. I felt myself freefalling. So I counted to three and pulled the D-ring"
Mattocks remembers hearing multiple explosions as he slowly drifted towards the ground. After steering his parachute away from the crash site and avoiding a collision with a tree, he landed safely in a field.
"I went to forward roll and stuck right in the ground. They had just plowed the field that evening. I saw a house to my right. I saw three people looking at the crash. I gathered up my stuff and walked over. When I stepped on the porch, they looked at me. I said, its just me, I just got out of that plane... I'm not from Mars."
The family took him to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Mattocks considers himself lucky to be alive.
"one of the other pilots asked me what religion what I was. I said, "First Baptist, but don't worry about that, my mother's and my grandmother's prayers kept me straight out of this one."
To this day, Mattocks is the only person to ever manually escape thru the top hatch of a B-52 bomber and live. I'm Jared Brumbaugh.