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Film Pulls Back the Curtain on Arkansas Nuke Disaster That Wasn't

On Sept. 18, 1980, Air Force officials struggled desperately to prevent an American thermonuclear warhead from blasting Arkansas off the map.

"Before Sept. 18, the only warheads that we thought would go off in the United States were Soviet warheads," Allan Childers, a former missile-complex crew member, says in the documentary " Command and Control," which chronicles the events of that day.

"We never considered that our warheads could detonate on our own continent."

The film was directed by Robert Kenner and is based on the book by Eric Schlosser.

 

 

It centers on a critical moment in American history that few people know about. If the warhead had detonated, the blast and radioactive fallout would have killed millions of Americans.

"It was on national news; it was on local news, but it was only there for a few days," said Kenner, of Los Angeles. "What happened wasn't really told, so it didn't linger. There was a story about a missile blowing up, but not a story about a warhead that could have blown up Arkansas and contaminate the East Coast. If the public had known that, it would have been the biggest story of the year."

The film focuses on the events at Titan II Missile Complex 374-7 near Damascus, Arkansas -- about 45 miles north of Little Rock -- when a slip-up by a technician resulted in a punctured fuel tank on a missile. Atop the missile was a thermonuclear warhead with three times more explosive power than all of the bombs dropped during World War II -- including the atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Kenner used what archival footage he could gather, but his real coup was in getting permission from the Air Force to film in a former nuclear missile silo (now a museum) near Tucson, Arizona, that was a duplicate of the facility in Arkansas.

"It was the most amazing location a filmmaker could ever work in," he said.

In the years since the incident, America's stockpile of nuclear missiles has been reduced and updated. With the end of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war has lessened. And, Kenner said, America has grown complacent.

"We've developed this incredible amnesia," he said. "We have to help the Air Force and help the government by having a citizenry being concerned about this issue."

Kenner conducted interviews with a range of people -- from Harold Brown, Defense secretary at the time of the incident, to Dave Powell, the technician whose accident caused the crisis that killed one of his friends.

And Powell hasn't forgotten.

"I hear a song on the radio, I'll see something on TV -- and bam -- there it is; it's back," Powell says in the movie. "It's very hard to talk about, even today. I try to live as normal a life as I can, but there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about it. Thirty -- whatever, 35 years -- whatever it's been.

"Every day."

tmikesel@dispatch.com

@Terrymikesell ___

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This article was written by Terry Mikesell from The Columbus Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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