- In 1961, a US nuclear bomber broke up over North Carolina farmland, killing three of eight crew members.
- The accident dropped two powerful hydrogen bombs over the area, but they did not detonate.
- The military fully recovered one of the bombs.
- While the second bomb was mostly recovered, one of its nuclear cores is likely still buried in up to 200 feet of mud and dirt.
Disaster struck early in the morning of January 24, 1961, as eight servicemen in a nuclear bomber were patrolling the skies near Goldsboro, North Carolina.
They were an insurance policy against a surprise nuclear attack by Russia on the United States – a sobering threat at the time. The on-alert crew might survive the initial attack, the thinking went, to respond with two large nuclear weapons tucked into the belly of their B-52G Stratofortress jet.
Each Mark 39 thermonuclear bomb was about 12 feet long, weighed more than 6,200 pounds, and could detonate with the energy of 3.8 million tons of TNT. Such a blast could kill everyone and everything within a diameter of about 17 miles – roughly the area inside the Washington, DC, beltway.
But the jet airplane and three of its crew members never returned to base, and neither did a nuclear core from one of the bombs.
The plane broke up about 2,000 feet above the ground, nearly detonating one of the bombs in the process.
Had the weapon exploded, the blast would have packed about 250 times as much explosive power as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Broken arrow over North Carolina
A major accident involving a nuclear weapon is called a "broken arrow," and the US military has officially recognized 32 since 1950.