You've probably heard by now that the U.S. military nearly committed the biggest "oopsie daisy!" in history when they accidentally dropped two nuclear bombs near Goldsboro, North Carolina. But what if they did? Thankfully they didn't detonate, but let's imagine, just for a split second, that they did. This isn't you typical Saturday morning exercise. There's a certain macabre aspect to it investigation that can be hard to get over. Thousands of people would be dead, but it's hard not to be at least a little curious to know how much of the U.S. would have been affected had the bombs gone off.
Here's the story, as reported in the Guardian on Friday: a B-52 bomber went out for a "routine" flight along the east coast from Seymour Johnson Air Force base in Goldsboro on January 23, 1961, just three days after John F. Kennedy was inaugurated. But this routine flight was not routine at all. The bomber broke up and went into a tailspin and, as the plane was falling, two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs each with a payload equal to about 4 million tons of TNT explosive came loose. Thankfully the last possible safeguard -- a low-voltage switch designed to prevent unintended detonation -- kicked in at the last minute. The three other safeguards didn't work. The blast, had it occurred, would have been "260 times more powerful than the device that devastated Hiroshima," according to the Guardian's Ed Pilkington.
So, it would have been bad.
How bad, you ask? Well, by using the handy NukeMap3D created by Alex Wellerstein, we can determine how much destruction would have followed at least one atomic bomb dropping in North Carolina. The blast could have reached, with the wind blowing in the right direction, as far up the coast as New York City. Philadelphia and Washington would likely have been affected. This map is calculated with a 15 mile an hour wind and 100 percent fission:
That's a lot of the east coast. The fallout would likely not fall in such a straight line. And depending on the weather, could bend in many directions and possibly stretch even further. This is all speculative, of course. Most importantly, thankfully, the bombs never detonated in real life.
We know about this ultimate close call thanks to investigate journalist Eric Schlosser. He unearthed this declassified document that details the incident in question through a Freedom of Information Act request while researching his new book, Command and Control, about the nuclear arms race.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.