It was January 17, 1966, and Jose Molinero was teaching a class in his elementary school in the village of Palomares, on Spain’s southeast coast, when he noticed huge pieces of blazing metal falling from the sky.
A plane’s landing gear smashed into the ground just 80 yards away. He immediately ordered his pupils to stay indoors. One little girl later described how the sky was ‘raining fire’.
Others witnessed the debris, too. ‘I looked up and saw this huge ball of fire, falling through the sky. The two planes were breaking into pieces,’ local man Manolo Gonzales later told Public Radio International.
Plane crashes are rare enough, mid-air collisions even more so, but this was even rarer – and far more dangerous… this was the day an American B-52 bomber and its refuelling plane collided causing four nuclear bombs to fall on Spain.
Each of these bombs was one hundred times more powerful than the one which had destroyed Hiroshima.
Octogenarian Pedro de la Torre was standing with his great-nephews when one of the bombs fell and exploded in front of him.
Thankfully, the blast was from the bomb’s regular payload – the nuclear part of the device had not been armed, otherwise Pedro, his family and much of the south-east of Spain would have been vaporised.
Palomares, a sleepy fishing village of 2,000 residents who prided themselves on the tomatoes grown in the area, now had 500 acres of land showered with three kilos of highly radioactive plutonium.
Seven airmen were killed in the accident. They were part of Operation Chrome Dome, a Cold War mission in which bombers were flown 24-hours-a-day in a roundtrip between America and Italy
The top-secret flights were to ensure the US had first strike and retaliation capabilities in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
Due to the lengthy flight, the B-52 had to be refueled four times in mid-air. It was during one of these refueling operations that disaster struck. The bomber pilot overshot the long refueling nozzle, which stuck the B-52 so hard that one of the wings was ripped off.
The 30,0000 gallons of fuel in the tanker ignited, incinerating its four-man crew, while four of the B-52 crew bailed out – which left the small problem of four hydrogen bombs plummeting towards the Spanish regions of Andalucia.
Although the conventional ordinance in two bombs exploded, neither did much harm. Their detonations caused a small amount of plutonium to be distributed, but this was carried away form the village on a strong breeze. Most of the radioactive release occurred deep below ground when the ordinance exploded. Of the other bombs, one fell in a dried river bed and the other into the sea.
In just 24 hours, three of the bombs were located and removed. The fourth would take 11 weeks to recover as it was 2,500 ft deep in the Mediterranean.
It was a miraculous escape for the villagers and the entire country. The citizens of Palomares have been subject to annual health checks ever since, which are funded by the Spanish government and the United States. A small percentage of villagers (5%) show traces of plutonium in their bodies, but the amount is said to be well below danger levels.
However, it was only in October 2015 – almost 50 years later – that America agreed to help finish the clean-up process. All contaminated soil from the area is to be disposed of at a site in the United States.
Europe was spared a dreadful catastrophe that day 50 years ago, but there have been other near misses when it comes to nuclear bombs. In 1957, a bomb fell from a B-36 and landed in Albuquerque. It never detonated, and a cow was the only victim in that mishap.
The following year there was a mid-air collision over Georgia between a B-47 and an F-36 jet. The B-47’s nuclear bomb was jettisoned into the Savannah River, but it has never been recovered, which might make you think twice about ordering fish in a Georgia restaurant.
In January 1961, a B-52 crashed at Yuba City, in California, but its nuclear bombs never detonated. The luckiest escape, though, was in January of 1961, when a B-52 broke apart over North Carolina. Two hydrogen bombs – each 260 times the strength of the Hiroshima device – fell to earth. One of them went into detonation sequence – only a faulty switch saved America from self-made nuclear Armageddon.
These days we look to countries like Iran and North Korea, or to terror organisations like Islamic State as being the possible source of nuclear catastrophe, but as we’ve seen above, when it comes to nuclear weapons, not even those who have their finger on the trigger are safe from disaster.
Blind luck has managed to keep catastrophe at bay so far, but one can only wonder how long before there is another accident like that at Palomares, but one which doesn’t have such a fortunate outcome.