“Don’t even bother shutting your door!”
January 23-29, 2023
By Jay Edwards
Imagine, v. to have a notion or idea; as, this has happened, I cannot imagine how. – Webster’s Universal Dictionary, 1940 edition
Close your eyes for a minute and try to imagine yourself back in 1980. What memories first rekindle? Like me you might think of the summer heat wave, when Little Rock had 40 days of triple digit temps. It was worse in Dallas, where it happened 69 times.
Or you might remember May 18 and imagine what it would have been like living in Washington State when the top blew off Mount St. Helens. We visited the summit of the mountain nine years later and it still looked like another planet.
Or maybe the first thing you think of is that FBI sting, known more commonly as Abscam, a name that soon became politically incorrect. There must be some irony in that.
In looking at the names of the politicians and officials who were convicted of bribery and conspiracy, included are six members of the house of representatives and one senator. The name of one seemed familiar to me, Congressman John Jenrette of South Carolina. Didn’t he have a wife? I asked myself. A little googling and I remembered. Oh right, Rita.
As for Congressman Jenrette, he was convicted of taking a $50,000 bribe and sentenced to two years in prison, of which he served 13 months. It wouldn’t be his last time behind bars, however. In 1989, he was caught stealing a necktie from a store in Virginia and was convicted of a misdemeanor, for which he spent another 30 days in jail.
Years later, in 2017, Jenrette wrote a book, and while promoting it he told what he’d been doing since his years on Capitol Hill, which included “marketing an experimental balloon-operated flotation device, running (and then folding) a national chain of timeshares, breeding horses in Bulgaria and selling cigarettes in eastern Europe immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union.” Imagine all of that if you can. And we haven’t even touched on Rita.
However, like many of you, my strongest memories from 1980 were from events I don’t have to imagine. The first took place six days after Mt. St. Helens exploded, when my brothers and I heard our mother yelling in the night, as she tried to wake my father. But she couldn’t and just like that he was gone, from a heart attack, at the age of 51.
A day three months later produces a much happier memory, from when Kathy and I walked down the aisle at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, during the waning days of that brutal heat wave. For our honeymoon, we decided to get some relief and headed to New Orleans, where I guess I imagined it wouldn’t be as hot. Smart.
It had indeed been a memorable year. But there was one other thing that happened, something that took place not that far from Little Rock, which could have made 1980 one of the most memorable years in the history of the world.
The incident began on the early evening of September 18, as two airmen were doing a routine check of a Titan II missile at the U.S. Air Force silo near Damascus, about 20 miles north of Conway just off Highway 65. In 1980 there were 54 such missile silos in the United States. Eighteen were in Arkansas, the rest in Kansas and Arizona.
One of the airmen, David Powell, carried with him a ratchet wrench, which was against the new regulation stating that only a torque wrench was to be used inside the silo. Powell later stated he had realized his mistake, but he already had his safety suit on and decided to go on ahead. A few minutes later, inside, the heavy socket fell from Powell’s hand and dropped 80 feet, where it deflected into the missile, tearing the skin, which protected a fuel tank that sat below the nine-megaton nuclear warhead.
As flammable fumes and fuel spewed from the missile’s tank, a team was quickly assembled to go in to assess and come up with a fast solution. They were told it was bad and that the task was voluntary.
Within the hour Air Force police began evacuating civilians who lived within a five-mile radius, telling the people to move quickly and not to bother even shutting their doors behind them.
Eric Schlosser, author of “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety,” said in an interview with Salon, that the massively powerful nuclear warhead was “three times more powerful than all the bombs used by all the armies in the Second World War.” And that includes the two dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan. Which basically means that if the unimaginable had happened, the people of Arkansas would have been gone, and its mountains and lakes and rivers and delta, turned into a wasteland.
Early Friday morning Senior Airman David Livingston and Sergeant Jeff Kennedy went into the silo. But they were soon ordered to evacuate due to detection of an unstable and possibly explosive atmosphere. After they were out, Livingston was told by command to go back and turn on an exhaust fan. He did as he was ordered and a moment later, around 3:00 a.m., the fuel exploded, blowing the 700-ton silo door 200-feet into the early morning sky, before it landed some 600-feet away. Kennedy was sent flying 150-feet. He suffered a broken leg and some serious burns but would survive. Livingston lay in a heap of concrete and metal. Some fellow airmen carried him out and got him to a hospital, but he didn’t make it.
There is a more detailed summary on the event in Encyclopedia of Arkansas. At the end of that piece are included public comments. One of them is from Greg Devlin, who was a 21-year-old airman stationed at Damascus on September 18, 1980. Devlin writes:
“Before Jeff Kennedy and David Livingston were able to enter the complex, Rex Hukle and I had to cut through a security fence and physically break through an electrically locked steel portal door using a crowbar, screwdrivers, and hammers.
When the Titan exploded, I was standing right at the entry gate, half suited up in my RFHCO suit, and I was blown 50 to 60 feet, landing on my back with concrete, steel, and flames going past my face. Rex was at the back of the pickup truck and leaped into the truck, shattering his kneecap, and burning his hands. That same truck had a chunk of concrete go right through the hood of the truck, landing in the carburetor. It would have killed him if it had landed on him. If it hadn’t been for two blood-curdling screams in my left ear to RUNNNNNN (from my guardian angel) I would have been the first person to die on the scene, because I would have been crushed by the concrete that landed just behind me as I was on the run. To this day, I’m amazed that God kept me alive.”
As for the missile’s warhead, it was discovered 100 feet from the entry gate, undetonated, allowing millions of Arkansans to wake up the next morning, totally unaware they almost didn’t. The warhead was moved to another site and the Damascus silo was cleaned up and shut down. In 2000 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The 54 Titan IIs in Arizona, Kansas and Arkansas were replaced by 50 MX “Peacekeeper” solid-fuel rocket missiles in the mid-1980s; the last Titan II silo was deactivated in May 1987.
There is one other memory I’ll share from 1980. Shortly before we got married, Kathy and I rented a little house in Park Hill in North Little Rock. I was a struggling bond salesman rookie at T.J. Raney and Sons, and she was finishing up her studies for a degree in psychology from UALR. It was a Monday night, and I was sitting in my comfortable chair in the den, watching my new, humongous, 19-inch Sony TV, clueless as to how close we’d come to being evaporated a few months earlier. I was watching the same thing I’ve watched most Monday nights since 1980. But back then it was Howard, Frank and Dandy Don who were telling me all the ins and outs of the game between the Dolphins and the Patriots. Then, as Patriots kicker John Smith took the field to attempt a game-winning field goal, Cosell began talking,
“Remember, this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses,” he said. “An unspeakable tragedy, confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous perhaps of all of the Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead on arrival.”
We still cannot imagine, John.