Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Life

A Wrench in the Works

Every day, we go about our lives doing thousands of routine, mundane tasks. And sometimes, we make mistakes. Human error. It happens all the time. It just doesn’t always happen in a nuclear missile silo.

An aerial shot of a destroyed missile silo surrounded by debris.

An aerial shot of the silo after the explosion. Image courtesy of Greg Devlin. (1980)

On September 18, 1980, two Air Force mechanics entered the Titan II missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas, to conduct routine maintenance. The Titan II’s power was immense—three times the force of all the bombs dropped in World War II. When one of the mechanics dropped a socket wrench from an upper platform, it fell, ricocheted into the side of the missile, and pierced the Titan II. The subsequent explosion killed one airman, destroyed the entire base, and sent the warhead flying 700 yards where it landed in a ditch. It was an accident that – had the warhead gone off – could have destroyed a giant portion of the Midwest.

This story was produced in collaboration with This American Life. We received support from National Endowment for the Humanities and listeners like you.

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