February 26, 2013

Repost: Anchorage Was Nearly Erased by Rocket Explosion in 1964

Nike Site, Site Summit Above Eagle River, Anchorage Launch about 1960

Like Slim Pickens the end of "Dr. Strangelove," during Anchorage's incredible, 5 min long 9.2 1964 earthquake, righteous guys at the Anti-Aircraft Missile Station at Site Point (now Kincaid Park) physically grabbed the Nike-Hercules missiles a  preventing the nuclear-tipped surface-to-air missiles from falling and exploding with rocket fuel, which would likely have scattered plutonium all over the city in the middle of the worst earthquake in the world in a century.
Almost no one who's written about this put it quite so bluntly. Anchorage was moments away, a lurch of metal, a spark, a slipped hand, from a huge radioactive bomb spreading potentially massive contamination in the middle of natural devastation.  Many of us owe our lives to these soldiers' quick thinking and physical risk.

The Collapsed Airport Tower, Anchorage International Airport, March 27, 1964 maybe a mile from the Missile site.  My father was on duty in this building, and ordered everyone out; one man did not survive. 

And considering the chaos (my Grandparents in Ohio somehow got a report that "the mountains had collapsed,")  it's not hard to imagine that a radioactive explosion in Anchorage might have been misinterpreted in the communications of the moment, and in the Cold War,  far worse events might have suddenly unfolded.

Quoted from the Anchorage Daily News story by Mike Dunham, "The Soul of Kincaid," 2007.
Anchorage got lucky the night of March 27, 1964. True, the biggest earthquake in American history had just struck. More than 100 people were dead across Southcentral Alaska. Upheaval, tsunamis and fires devastated towns, roads and harbors. But, according to some, it could have been horrifically worse.

The quake sent Nike missiles tumbling from their launchers just south of Anchorage International Airport. As aftershocks rumbled and temperatures sank below freezing, soldiers gritted their teeth and struggled with numb fingers to stabilize the highly volatile rocket motors and warheads, squinting by flashlight at manuals that didn't match the "mangled mess" they were looking at.

This tale is recounted in detail on Nike-Hercules Alaska, a Web site dedicated to Nike installations in Alaska. The extensive site is maintained by historian Jim Sapp, a former Nike soldier.

Nikes were built to carry nuclear payloads of up to 20 kilotons, according to the authoritative reference Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems. To this day, the Department of Defense will not reveal whether the Anchorage Nikes were armed only with conventional explosives or with nuclear weapons.
That information is still restricted, an Army spokesman at Fort Richardson said last month.

Which is almost beside the point. Even if they were armed with (mere) conventional 1,100-pound warheads, an errant spark or open flame or another big jolt could have detonated the clustered solid rocket fuel and multiple explosives in a stupendous fireball.

A "dirty bomb" incident -- radioactive material from damaged nuclear devices spewing into the air and dousing the region -- would have turned the '64 disaster into an epic catastrophe.

No wonder that some personnel, "scared to death, ran away and were gone for days," an officer at the scene recalls on the Nike-Hercules Alaska Web site.
The heroes who stayed and sweated through the hours after the quake received the Army's Meritorious Unit Commendation and a parade in their honor.
But no one who knew was allowed to say why.
Nike Radar dome at Site Point (Now Kincaid Park, Anchorage)

 More from www.nikealaska.org:

"At Site Point, we were almost accustomed to the many aftershocks from the big quake. You always slept with your clothes on, even when you weren't on the 'duty' crew. We were prepared at a moment's notice to run outside the building. With so many larger aftershocks, we had learned how to recognize when one was about to hit. You could hear the low pitched rumble through the ground - it reminded me as a child how I was able to hear a train coming in the far distance by the sounds in the rails, even before the train had gotten close enough to hear the whistle."
"Another incident that comes to mind occurred exactly one week after the initial quake - again, at suppertime. By that time, everyone on site was fully cognizant of what (didn't) happen in the launcher area and so were very much on edge about the potential hazards of additional quakes. The ground started shaking violently and the vent hood over the stove made a very loud noise and fell on the cooks. They (and everyone else in the messhall and barracks) ran out into the open. Later, I learned that the noise of the falling range hood created fears that missiles were exploding in the launcher area."
"A funny exchange occurred with a reporter from the Anchorage newspaper when they had a special parade at Ft Richardson honoring A Battery. The reporter asked what was the big deal about A Battery. 'Everybody had troubles with the earthquake. Many people lost their homes and livelihoods, especially in the Turnagain Arms area close by the site.' There was nothing we could say." [The topic of nuclear warheads at the site was not open for discussion.]
Perhaps the biggest thing to celebrate was what didn't happen at site Point. "

I certainly remember the "Big Golf Ball," at the end of Raspberry Rd. I remember seeing this B-17 extremely and thoroughly destroyed in this film in elementary school (PS, WTF, in elementary school?)  My mom, Amy, had written operations manuals for the earlier Bomarc missile system, but they never let the technical writers see the missiles-note the same trouble above with the Nike system.


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