HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (KTHV) - On September 18, 1980, a missile carrying a nuclear warhead 600 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima exploded. It happened around 50 miles outside Little Rock, north of Damascus in Van Buren County.
A missile silo barely avoided being the worst nuclear disaster on American soil. Many people may have never heard of it, but a documentary hopes to enlighten people on that fateful night in September.
On Friday night, a film about the Titan II Missile Explosion, "Command and Control" aired at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.
In 2004, writer Eric Schlosser showed up at Sam Hutto's dairy farm asking questions about what he saw on September 19, 1980.
"When it exploded, it was just a huge fireball," Hutto explained. "Then there was a smaller flame that came out of the fireball, and went several hundred feet, I don't know how high up in the air, broke over, then fell back down to the ground."
Hutto later learned that smaller fireball was the warhead itself. The flames he saw were the detonation charges burning off the nuclear warhead. He witnessed the explosion from his family farm less than a mile away from the missile silo.
The missile exploded after an airman doing maintenance on the Titan II missile dropped a wrench socket in its fuel tank.
"We were fumbling the ball ourselves," explained Skip Rutherford who worked at Senator David Pryor's office in Little Rock. "This was not about us versus the enemy this was about us versus us.”
He said after a leak at the silo released poisonous gas above Highway 65 months before the accident airmen from the silo started calling his office with stories.
"About how overworked they were, how understaffed they were, how bad the equipment was, how many failures they'd had in terms of leakage and other issues," Rutherford said. "They said if something is not done, some day, some time, one of these missiles is going to explode."
On September 18th, 1980 their premonitions came true.
"The Air Force's official position was: we will contain this,” Rutherford explained.
He said the Air Force assured Senator Pryor the missile wouldn't blow.
"For about a mile west of the missile base fanning out to a quarter-mile wide at the base of it, there were pieces of steel big as houses, hunks of concrete the size of cars covering the ground almost solid,” Hutto said, recalling what he saw after the smoke cleared.
The missile exploded and the war head was released. However, all of its safety features worked properly, meaning the actual bomb did not explode.
"It rolled into a ditch. It was cracked, but there was no radiation leakage," Rutherford said.
Rutherford's mind raced with questions. What if it went off, what if there was a radiation leak from a cracked or damaged warhead, what are you saying to the rest of the world, what would the Russians think? The missile exploding happened right in the middle of United States "cold war" with Russia. To Rutherford, it was "the scariest night of [his] life."
The documentary, based on a book on the even, explained not only what went wrong in Damascus, but also exposed weaknesses and near-misses at nuclear sites across the country.
Hutto and Rutherford's stories will be told in their entirety at opening night of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. That event was sold out.
American Experience Films will also be screening the film Saturday in Damascus at South Side Bee Branch and Sunday at the Ron Robinson Theater.
For more information on the film, and how to get tickets, visit http://www.commandandcontrolfilm.com.