Titan II Missile Explosion (1980)
The Titan II Launch Complex 374-7 in Southside (Van Buren County), just north of Damascus (Van Buren and Faulkner counties), became the site of the most highly publicized disaster in the history of the Titan II missile program when its missile exploded within the launch duct on September 19, 1980. An Air Force airman was killed, and the complex was destroyed. The Titan II Missile Launch Complex 374-7 Site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on February 18, 2000.
Complex 374-7 had already been the site of one significant accident on January 27, 1978, when an oxidizer leak sent a cloud of toxic fumes 3,000 feet long, 300 feet wide, and 100 feet high drifting across U.S. Highway 65. Civilians were evacuated from the area, and four people suffered some ill effects from contact with the vapors. The leak was quickly repaired.
On September 18, 1980, at about 6:30 p.m., an airman conducting maintenance on the Titan II missile dropped a wrench socket, which fell about eighty feet before hitting and piercing the skin on the rocket’s first-stage fuel tank, causing it to leak. The commander of the 308th Strategic Missile Wing quickly formed a potential-hazard team, and by 9:00 p.m., the Air Force personnel manning the site were evacuated. About one hour later, Air Force security police began evacuating nearby civilian residents as efforts continued to determine the status of the missile and the fuel leak.
Airmen Rex Hukle and Greg Devlin were the first to enter the complex, under orders to cut down a security fence and then break through a steel outer portal that had an electromagnetic lock. They accomplished this using a crowbar and other tools. They were unable, however, to open the inner blast doors. Senior Airman David Livingston and Sergeant Jeff K. Kennedy then entered the launch complex early on the morning of September 19 to get readings of airborne fuel concentrations, which they found to be at their maximum. At about 3:00 a.m., the two men returned to the surface to await further instructions. Just as they sat down on the concrete edge of the access portal, the missile exploded, blowing the 740-ton launch duct closure door 200 feet into the air and some 600 feet northeast of the launch complex. The W-53 nuclear warhead landed about 100 feet from the launch complex’s entry gate; its safety features operated correctly and prevented any loss of radioactive material. Kennedy, his leg broken, was blown 150 feet from the silo. Livingston lay amid the rubble of the launch duct for some time before security personnel located and evacuated him. Livingston died of his injuries that day. Twenty-one people, including Hukle and Devlin, were injured by the explosion or during rescue efforts.
In early October 1980, cleanup operations gathered tons of debris from around 400 acres surrounding the launch complex and pumped some 100,000 gallons of contaminated water from the silo. The total cost to replace Launch Complex 374-7 was estimated at $225,322,670, while demolition and cleanup were expected to cost $20,000,000. Ultimately, the Air Force decided to seal the complex with soil, gravel, and small concrete debris.
A congressional inquiry into the accident found the Titan II missile program to be essentially reliable. It recommended, however, improved communications between the Air Force and local officials in case of accidents and a modification of the Air Force’s policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence and condition of nuclear weapons at an accident site.
Six Air Force servicemen—Livingston (posthumously), Kennedy, Hukle, Devlin, Don Green, and Jimmy Roberts—were awarded Airman’s Medals for Heroism in May 1981 for their actions (though Kennedy had earlier received an official reprimand), and the Titan II maintenance structure at Little Rock Air Force Base was later designated the Livingston Building in honor of Livingston.
For additional information:
Cold War Resources Associated with the 308th Strategic Missile Wing in Arkansas Multiple-Property Submission Historic Context. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Fellone, Frank. “Explosive Era: Tour Visits Site Where Titan II Blast in 1980 Sent Warhead Flying.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 21, 2015, pp. 1E, 6E. Online at http://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2015/sep/21/explosive-era-20150921/ (accessed November 2, 2020).
Schlosser, Eric. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. New York: Penguin, 2013.
Stumpf, David K. “We Can Neither Confirm Nor Deny.” In Sentinels of History: Reflections on Arkansas Properties on the National Register of Historic Places, edited by Mark K. Christ and Cathryn H. Slater. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
———. Titan II: A History of a Cold War Missile Program. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
Mark K. Christ
Arkansas Historic Preservation Program
Last Updated: 11/02/2020