January 27: Nuclear Disaster, Almost
On this date in 1983 a B-52 Stratofortress bomber exploded at the Grand Forks Air Force Base with the loss of 5 personnel. Fortunately, it did not have nuclear weapons on board. That was not the case less than 3 years earlier when on September 15th, 1980, a B-52 on alert status caught fire. Fanned by strong winds, the fire became a giant flamethrower. The crew jumped clear and ran.
The fire burned for several hours. The paint on the bomb bay bubbled and peeled as fire crews hosed the plane down, trying to keep the bomb bay cool. Inside were 8 nuclear missiles and 4 hydrogen bombs.
Calls to Strategic Air Command and Boeing proved fruitless. No one knew what to do. With the fuel in the bomber in danger of exploding, it was possible that the weapons could detonate, causing a catastrophe that would wipe out much of Grand Forks. Even if the bombs did not detonate, an explosion could spread plutonium dust over hundreds of square miles and prove worse than the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.
Tim Griffis, a civilian fire inspector on the base, was among the responders. Griffis knew the internal workings of the B-52 and had fought fires on them. Tim put on fire gear and ran toward the burning plane. He crawled in a hatch on the raging inferno and made his way to the cockpit where he turned on the emergency battery switch. With the power on, the fire suppression handle was activated, closing a fuel valve, and putting the fire out almost immediately. When Griffis exited the plane, he was greeted to loud cheering. He had averted almost certain disaster.
This story was due to gain a lot of attention, but it was replaced in the headlines 3 days later when a workman dropped a tool in a nuclear missile silo in Arkansas. It caused the missile to leak fuel and explode, throwing the warhead out and away from the silo. Although less dangerous than the B-52 incident, it grabbed the attention of the press, and the Grand Forks event was forgotten.
Tim Griffis was not forgotten. This hero, who had a wife and several young children, was presented with the highest civilian award for bravery given by the US Air Force, the Civilian Medal of Valor.
Dakota Datebook by Scott Nelson
- Book, Command and Control, Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the illusion of safety by Eric Schlosser
- University Of Mary magazine, 360 Review, Spring/Summer 2017, Command &(Losing) Control: Nuclear Weapons & the Always-Never Dilemma