The United States nearly detonated an atomic bomb over North Carolina, according to documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser. The document reveals how the United States Air Force came dangerously close to detonating a 3.8 megaton atom bomb near Goldsboro, North Carolina.

The Guardian reports:

The document, obtained by the investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the Freedom of Information Act, gives the first conclusive evidence that the US was narrowly spared a disaster of monumental proportions when two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were accidentally dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina on 23 January 1961. The bombs fell to earth after a B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air, and one of the devices behaved precisely as a nuclear weapon was designed to behave in warfare: its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms engaged, and only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage.

Each bomb carried a payload of 4 megatons – the equivalent of 4 million tons of TNT explosive. Had the device detonated, lethal fallout could have been deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and as far north as New York city – putting millions of lives at risk.

Though there has been persistent speculation about how narrow the Goldsboro escape was, the US government has repeatedly publicly denied that its nuclear arsenal has ever put Americans' lives in jeopardy through safety flaws. But in the newly-published document, a senior engineer in the Sandia national laboratories responsible for the mechanical safety of nuclear weapons concludes that "one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe".

Writing eight years after the accident, Parker F Jones found that the bombs that dropped over North Carolina, just three days after John F Kennedy made his inaugural address as president, were inadequate in their safety controls and that the final switch that prevented disaster could easily have been shorted by an electrical jolt, leading to a nuclear burst. "It would have been bad news – in spades," he wrote.

Jones dryly entitled his secret report "Goldsboro Revisited or: How I learned to Mistrust the H-Bomb" – a quip on Stanley Kubrick's 1964 satirical film about nuclear holocaust, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

A Mark 39 bomb as discovered following the 1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash

A Mark 39 bomb as discovered following the 1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash

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Having left Seymour Johnson Air Force base in Goldsboro on a routine flight along the East Coast the B-52 bomber experienced trouble and the hydrogen bombs it was carrying became separated from the craft during a tailspin.

One of the bombs landed in a meadow off Big Daddy’s Road and the other in a field near Faro, North Carolina.

According to Jones, the Faro bomb was equipped with four safety mechanisms, which were to prevent any unintended detonation. Of those four, three failed to operate properly. In fact, when the bomb fell back to the ground guided by its parachute, Jones discovered that a firing signal was sent to the nuclear core of the device, but that it was the final switch that kept the bomb from detonating.

"The MK 39 Mod 2 bomb did not possess adequate safety for the airborne alert role in the B-52," Jones concludes.

"The US government has consistently tried to withhold information from the American people in order to prevent questions being asked about our nuclear weapons policy," he said. "We were told there was no possibility of these weapons accidentally detonating, yet here's one that very nearly did."

Schlosser came across the documents in gathering information for his new book COMMAND AND CONTROL: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.

Below are the actual documents obtained from the Freedom Of Information Act. The words are quite chilling.

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Correction: The original article referred to the Mark 39 as having the yield of 24 megatons. The article has been updated to reflect the correct yield of 3.8 megatons.

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