How We Narrowly Avoided a Nuclear War in America, as Explained by Those Who Saved Us

A new documentary tells the story behind an averted nuclear holocaust.

Photo Credit: PBS / Robert Kenner

Nearly 40 years ago, a team of Air Force personnel, weapon designers and first responders in Arkansas narrowly prevented a nuclear holocaust. But it was not an isolated incident; rather one of numerous times in which America came terrifyingly close to domestic nuclear detonation.

This was the inspiration for Eric Schlosser's 2013 book Command and Control and the 2016 documentary of the same name. Released on January 10, the film chronicles the nonfiction thriller with eyewitness accounts of the unlikely chain of events. 

The man who dropped the socket, the warhead designer and the Secretary of Defense recount the horrifying evening of September 18, 1980. 

"I originally was going to write a relatively short book about this accident in Damascus, Arkansas, which was an extraordinary story," Schlosser told Mother Jones in 2013. "But the deeper I got, the more I realized that the subject of nuclear weapons accidents hadn't really been written about, and that the threat was much greater than I thought it was."

The night of September 18 began with a routine maintenance check at the Titan II silo in Damascus, by two engineers, Dave F. Powell and Jeffrey L. Plumb. That's when a socket fell and punctured the missile. As the silo gathered explosive fuel, they panicked.

The explosion, which took nine hours to remedy, could have been 600 times more catastrophic than Hiroshima. 

"Each stage for the missile had two separate tanks. One was filled with fuel and the other was filled with oxidizer," explained Allan Childers, a member of the Missile Combat Crew. 

"All you gotta do is mix those two fuels and you're gonna have an explosion," added Rodney Holder, another crew member. 

From Schlosser's viewpoint, we've been pretty lucky. 

"If we don't greatly reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world, or completely eliminate them, a major city is going to be destroyed by a nuclear weapon. It's remarkable, it's incredible, that a major city hasn't been destroyed since Nagasaki," Schlosser said. 

Command and Control airs Tuesday, January 10, on PBS.

Watch an exclusive clip:

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Alexandra Rosenmann is an AlterNet associate editor. Follow her @alexpreditor.