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1966 Hydrogen-Bomb Mishap in Spain Detailed

Four nuclear weapons fell on a populated area after planes collided. Incident is explored in photo exhibition.

August 24, 2003|Daniel Woolls | Associated Press Writer

PALOMARES, Spain — In a sunny corner of the world where nothing much ever happened, a fruit wholesaler named Martin Moreno climbed atop a leaking American H-bomb and tried to pry loose a souvenir.

Oblivious to the danger from radiation, he poked a screwdriver into a crack, working in vain to secure his prize.

"I've never regretted that nor have I been afraid," Moreno, an engaging, healthy-looking man of 68, said in recounting that morning in the winter of 1966.

His bird's-eye view of those 1.5 megatons of destructive power -- Hiroshima 75 times over -- didn't last long.

American troops and Spanish police soon swarmed around the 10-foot-long bomb and carted it off. It was one of four hydrogen bombs that had plummeted from a B-52 that had collided with a refueling plane.

Nuclear bombs had been involved in previous plane crashes, but this was the first -- and only -- known case of such weapons being lost in a populated area.

Most people in Palomares, a sleepy farming hamlet on Spain's southeast tip, never saw the bombs, one of which ended up in the Mediterranean. Nor did they get a peek inside the tent city thrown up to house the 800 Americans who searched for the bombs and cleaned up the radioactive mess.

But now the camp and much of Spain's worst nuclear scare are on display for the first time in this country at a photo exhibition based on 16-mm film footage from the National Archives in Washington.

In 1966, Spain lived under the thumb of Gen. Francisco Franco, and about the only image most Spaniards remember from the disaster is a chirpy newsreel in which Information Minister Manuel Fraga and U.S. Ambassador Angier Biddle Duke took a swim at a Palomares beach to show that it was safe to go back in the water.

In the exhibition, however, photos show charred wreckage of the crashed B-52 and tanker, soldiers hauling thousands of barrels of contaminated soil onto ships bound for a nuclear cemetery, doctors sticking swabs up noses to check for radiation exposure, and frogmen and mini-subs looking for the bomb that fell into the sea and eluded recovery for 75 days.

The exhibition, "Operation Broken Arrow: Nuclear Accident in Palomares," opened in May in the provincial capital, Almeria, and will make a tour of Spain.

It is the work of Spanish film producer Antonio Sanchez Picon and photographer Jose Herrera. They culled 60 frames from 36 reels of movie film -- 700,000 frames altogether -- at the National Archives. Herrera has researched the Palomares incident for nearly 20 years.

The Cold War was in full swing in 1966, and U.S. policy was to keep nuclear-armed warplanes in the air constantly near the Soviet border. Under an accord with Franco, U.S. B-52s had permission to fly over Spain and rendezvous in Spanish airspace with KC-135 tankers.

On the morning of Jan. 17, 1966, a routine refueling operation turned disastrous. It is believed that the B-52 flew too fast as it approached the tanker from below. The planes collided, killing seven of 11 crew members and raining 100 tons of flaming wreckage over 15 square miles.

And the four H-bombs tumbled from the B-52.

While one bomb splashed into the sea, the other three hit the ground. None exploded -- layers of safeguards made that virtually impossible -- but seven pounds of plutonium 239 were released when two bomb detonators did go off. The three bombs on the ground were found in the first 24 hours.

The villagers of Palomares -- population 600 then, 1,400 today -- went days without knowing that they were at ground zero of an unprecedented nuclear accident.

"H-bomb, butane gas canister, what difference would it have made?" said Mayor Juan Jose Perez. "This is a rural area. What did people know about bombs?"

But some caught on when doctors speaking a strange language came around asking for urine samples and waving gadgets that ticked.

Crops were dug up and burned -- a mistake, it turns out, that only served to disperse radioactive particles. Contaminated soil was scooped up with tractors.

The mayor says Palomares today has the same cancer rate as the rest of Spain, although the government still tests people at random, and late last year it warned against construction where the two semi-detonated bombs fell.

At the time of the crash, the danger of contamination was largely overshadowed by the frantic search for the bomb lurking on the seabed, an operation using 34 ships, 2,200 sailors, 130 frogmen and four mini-subs.

A Spanish fisherman had come forward quickly to say he'd seen something fall that looked like a bomb, but experts ignored him. Instead, they focused on four possible trajectories calculated by a supercomputer, but for weeks found only airplane pieces.

Media worldwide expressed stupefaction. Newsweek ribbed the Pentagon: "Where, oh where has our H-bomb gone? Oh where, oh where can it be?"

The fisherman, Francisco Simo, was summoned back. He sent searchers in the right direction, having memorized the impact spot using visual triangulation, a mariner's trick used since the time of the Phoenicians. A two-man sub, the Alvin, finally found it in 2,162 feet of water.

But the nightmare was not over. The sub surfaced to recharge its batteries and went back down for the bomb, but it was gone. The crew discovered that it had tumbled 400 feet down an undersea slope.

Several attempts to grab the bomb with mechanical arms failed. It rolled farther down the hill and when Alvin finally secured it, the weapon lay near a 5,000-foot-deep abyss.

"If they hadn't got it then, they might never have," Perez said.

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