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The Armageddon That Wasn’t - “American Experience: Command and Control”

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In Damascus, Arkansas, on September 18, 1980, a single socket triggered nine hours of terror - and what could have been an explosion 600 times more powerful than Hiroshima.

That night, two airmen were on a routine maintenance mission inside a Titan II Strategic Air Command (SAC) silo missile complex just 46 miles from Little Rock. Perched on top of the missile they were working on was the most powerful nuclear warhead in the U.S. arsenal. And with a horrible, but all-too-human slip of the hand, one man dropped the socket from a wrench, which plummeted down the silo … bounced … and hit the side of the missile, piercing a fuel tank that began spewing fuel vapor into the silo.

SocketDropTitanII

It’s just the beginning of a narrative that changed — and continues to impact — the nation’s view of nuclear weapons, and the potential for nuclear disasters. “American Experience: Command and Control” chronicles the feverish efforts to avoid a catastrophic explosion and potential nuclear detonation in minute-by-minute detail on AETN Tuesday, Jan. 10, at 8 p.m. The film will also rebroadcast Sunday, Jan. 15, at 3:30 p.m.

DamascusControlRoom

Eyewitness accounts — from the man who dropped the socket, to the man who designed the warhead, to the Secretary of Defense — help to to tell the documentary thriller’s story of a topic critical to the future of humankind: nuclear safety.

Damascus Injury

While the film highlights the extremely hazardous work of the Titan II crew members and workers who responded to the disaster — one of whom was killed — to prevent disasters, the film also recognizes that the force that prevented a wider catastrophe was owed largely to luck. Had the missile detonated its nuclear warhead, millions in Arkansas and neighboring states would have died within minutes. The plume of deadly radioactive fallout could have extended from the mid-South to the East Coast, perhaps as far away as Washington.

TitanIIMissile

Though the Titan II missiles have long since been retired — and were even generally considered obsolete in 1980 — the U.S. nuclear-weapons program is still in operation. The number of near-misses within the program are estimated to range from 32 to more than 1,000, as you’ll see in the film, interspersed amongst archival footage, recent interviews and vintage new clips.

While the near-catastrophe was reported, neither Arkansas nor the nation were remotely given the full truth about how near we came to utter decimation. By calling attention to the freak accidents, near misses, human fallibility and extraordinary heroism encountered in the Damascus incident — and subverted information and scapegoating that often followed such near-misses — the documentary exposes the terrifying truth of what can happen when the weapons build to protect us threaten to destroy us. “Command and Control” also raises important questions about the ongoing management of America’s nuclear arsenal on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, at 8 p.m.

AETN is proud to continue the discussion surrounding the Damascus nuclear event with a special rebroadcast of “Barnes and … A Conversation With Eric Schlosser” immediately after “Command and Control” at 10 p.m.

Schlosser, who wrote the book “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety” that the “American Experience” film is based upon, appeared in AETN Studios in 2013 to discuss the book, its impact on the local community and how the incident changed the way nuclear weapons were viewed in America. The episode is also available online, anytime at aetn.org/programs/barnesand.

TUNE IN:


“American Experience: Command and Control,”

Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 15, at 3:30 p.m. 

“Barnes and … A Conversation With Eric Schlosser,”Tuesday, Jan. 10, at 10 p.m.

LEARN MORE:

Titan II Missile Explosion (1980)

”Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety”

”American Experience: Command and Control”