On a January night in 1961, a U.S. Air Force bomber broke in half while flying over eastern North Carolina. From the belly of the B-52 fell two bombs — two nuclear bombs that hit the ground near the city of Goldsboro.
A disaster worse than the devastation wrought in Hiroshima and Nagasaki could have befallen the United States that night. But it didn’t, thanks to a series of fortunate missteps.
Declassified documents that the National Security Archive released this week offered new details about the incident. The blaring headline read: “Multi-Megaton Bomb Was Virtually ‘Armed’ When It Crashed to Earth.”
Or, as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara put it in back then, “By the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.”
It’s difficult to calculate the destruction those bombs might have caused had they detonated in North Carolina.
What might’ve been
The website, nuclearsecrecy.com, allows users to simulate nuclear explosions. It says that one bomb the size of the two that fell in 1961 would emit thermal radiation over a 15-mile radius. Wind conditions, of course, could change that.
The blast today, with populations in the area at their current level, would kill more than 60,000 people and injure more 54,000, though the website warns that calculating casualties is problematic, and the numbers do not include those killed and injured by fallout.
It’s also worth noting that North Carolina’s 1961 total population was 47% of what it is today, so if you apply that percentage to the numbers, the death toll is 28,000 with 26,000 people injured — a far cry from those killed by smaller bombs on the more densely populated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
University of California-Los Angeles researchers estimate that, respectively, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had populations of about 330,000 and 250,000 when they were bombed in August 1945. By that December, the cities’ death tolls included, by conservative estimates, at least 90,000 and 60,000 people.