"Me" is the author of this post, "Mik" is Jim Miklaszewski, the NBC reporter who now covers the Pentagon, and the atomic bomb I'm writing about is the nuclear tipped Titan 2 missile that had blown up in its silo in Damascus, Arkansas on September 19, 1980. That almost disaster is the principal subject of a new book Command Control by Eric Schlosser. The book gets it mostly right, but misses out on the real drama.
I was out of Atlanta when I read on the wire that the missile had exploded. The wire reported that the Air Force denied the presence of any nuclear material. I called Jim Rutledge, the CNN assignment editor and told him to send our satellite truck, a six-wheeled semi with a five meter parabolic dish mounted on the bed of the truck to feed the event live to Atlanta. Mik had already flown up to Damascus with his crew, attended the military briefing where the Air Force refused to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear warheads.They had given the impression that there was no danger, the story was over and the newsmen should go home.
Mik called Rutledge and said "The story is over, there is nothing more to report." Rutledge tells Mik "You better find something, Reese has just sent the live truck to Damascus. Reese said 'Anytime I hear the words 'Air Force' and 'nuclear' in the same sentence, I want a live truck.'" Mik stays.
As the live truck made its way over the back roads from Atlanta to Damascus, it killed a cow, bought the corpse from the farmer, and finally arrived at the scene by noon the next day. The county sheriff was leading a bunch of people who looked like sharecroppers down the road. They were toting bags on their shoulders and carrying bags in their hands. Mik asks the sheriff what's happening. The sheriff says, live on camera, "I don't know, I've just been ordered to get them out of here." Mik's suspicions deepened. The Air Force tells him there has been a liquid fuel spill, it is dangerous but not nuclear. The Air Force in Washington refuses to comment, except to say there are "no nuclear hazards".
Our truck is parked on a dusty two-lane road looking toward a hill on which the missile site is perched. Mik is to do five-minute live reports every half hour. We set our camera up at ground level and watch the Air Force clean-up begin. (All the other network television crews have gone home.) Even as Mik starts shooting, the Air Force moves two blue step-vans and tries to block our view. Mik moves our camera to the top of the truck and we see a cluster of men in Hazmat suits, with Geiger counters in their hands. The Air Force brought in bigger trucks.
A telephone lineman installing temporary trucks for the phone line tells Mik that the Air Force has told him that it is a nuclear warhead. A county supervisor tells Mik that the AIr Force won't give him a flat denial. Neither will they give one to Mik when he asks. Based on that information, Mik reports that a nuclear warhead is present. An Air Force general tells Mik radiation from the trucks "cooking his pilots" and demands we shut down. Mik did not agree and for the next few hours he does live voiceovers as the camera watches the Air Force trying to get its mystery package covered up. Mik got all the pictures, including the last one when Mik reported that the last thing the audience saw was Air Force personnel chaining the canister down on their flatbed truck.
Throughout that long September weekend CNN had the only camera watching the Air Force live as it attempted to cope with and cover up a potential nuclear disaster. I believe to this day, if it hadn't been for Mik and our flatbed truck the Air Force might've gotten away with it.
(The full story of the incident is reported in pages 182-187 of my book, Me and Ted Against the World.)