Ortonville man was on site, lost a friend, in the Damascus nuclear missile explosion in 1980
By Scott Thoma
Not a day goes by that Jim Sandaker of Ortonville doesn’t reflect on how close he was to a nuclear catastrophe that could have killed hundreds of thousands of people in the southern United States.
Sandaker was a 19-year-old Propellant Transfer System (PTS) technician in the United States Air Force when a two-stage rocket carrying a 9-megaton nuclear warhead exploded in its silo following an accident on Sept. 18, 1980, outside Damascus, Ark.
“It was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” said Sandaker, 64, who grew up in Evansville. “It was a huge explosion with a giant fireball and mushroom cloud.”
But the sound of that explosion pales in Sandaker’s mind in comparison to shouts of “Help me, help me” that he heard over a truck radio that were being shouted from a friend who was inside the silo area when the rocket exploded.
“Hearing those screams still haunts me to this day,” said Sandaker.
Becoming a PTS crewman wasn’t something on Sandaker’s mind when he enlisted in the Air Force as a 17-year-old in 1976. It was considered the most dangerous job in the military during peacetime.
“That was the job I was assigned to,” he said, followed by a chuckle that emphasized it wasn’t a position he chose when he enlisted.
The job of a PTS crewmen was that of a rocket fuel handler. Their main job was to maintain the rockets inside the silos. There were 18 siloed rockets that his crew maintained in Arkansas at the time.
“We would have to put on RFHCO (Rocket Fuel Handlers Coverall Outfit) suits and our job was to load and offload propellants on the rockets,” said Sandaker. “It was an amazing job, but extremely hazardous.”
The two-stage rockets each had two tanks inside, one filled with oxidizer and the other with hydrazine. If the two fuels were accidentally mixed, it would create an immediate spontaneous combustion and could cause the radioactive warhead to explode.
The RFHCO suits, which included a helmet, air pack, communication system, and rubber boots and gloves, weighed around 60 pounds. Besides being extremely dangerous, the work these men would perform was hard and exhausting.
“You had to be in very good shape to be able to handle the job,” Sandaker said.
At 6:30 p.m. on the day of the accident, control operators reported that the hydrazine tank in the second stage of the 106-foot Titan II Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (IBM) was showing a decrease in pressure, so a PTS team came up from the Little Rock Air Force base 45 miles away and proceeded to check the levels. The nine-pound socket they were using slipped off the ratchet handle and dropped 80 feet, caromed off a launch buckle, and hit the side of the first stage of the rocket, piercing the skin and fuel tank. The oxidizer immediately began leaking out.
The PTF crew reported the accident to the underground control room. Following an evacuation process of those in the area, two other PTS crew members, Senior Airman David Livingston and Sgt. Jeff Kennedy donned the RFHCO suits and went inside the silo to take atmospheric tests to determine the concentration levels of fuel in the air inside the silo.
Once it was determined that the situation was extremely dangerous, Livingston and Kennedy were ordered to evacuate the silo. Officials felt that one option that might help lessen the danger was to turn on the ventilation fans inside the silo to exhaust the air outside.
Livingston signaled to Kennedy that he would go inside and turn on the fans. The fear was that if all the fuel leaked out of the first stage’s tank, it would collapse and the two fuels would mix.
“The rocket was like an aluminum pop can,” Sandaker explained. “If it’s filled with fuel, it’s solid, but once the fuel escapes, it became much weaker. If fuel is leaking and air can be put in to replace the missing fuel, the rocket wouldn’t collapse. Titan II was a similar rocket to those used in some of the Gemini missions.”
When Livington re-entered the silo, the rocket collapsed and Air Force personnel’s worse fears were suddenly thrust upon them. The rocket exploded, totally demolishing the silo and launch control room. Livingston and Kennedy were critically injured. Several other Air Force personnel in the area were also badly wounded.
When the rocket’s first stage exploded, it sent the second stage and the warhead through a 750-foot concrete and metal door above it. Once it cleared the door, the second stage exploded, propelling the nuclear warhead even further away.
Air Force personnel eventually found the warhead 100 yards away in a ditch after a lengthy search in the dark. Fortunately, a safety feature on the warhead prevented any radiation from escaping.
Sandaker was 21 years old at the time, and was living in a house on the base with his wife and first-born child.
“Job control called me at home and told me there was a leak at the missile site,” said Sandaker. “I knew it was serious because they called me at home. All I knew was there was a fuel leak on Stage-1.”
Sandaker went to the barracks and woke men up and told them there was an accident and that they all needed to get out to the site immediately.
The men loaded up the RFHCO suits, air packs, tool boxes, and other necessary items and a convoy of trucks with 10-12 men headed out to the missile site.
“Our job would be to hook up vent lines on Stage-1 to relieve the pressure,” Sandaker said. “Hopefully, by doing that, we could stabilize the pressure of the atmosphere so the missile didn’t collapse. We knew what we had to do.”
As the men reached the approach road to the missile site around one-fourth mile from the silo, they were met by several members of the media, police, firemen, EMTs, ambulances, all with lights flashing.
“That’s when I knew this must be bad,” said Sandaker. “We set up a few hundred yards away and began filling the backpacks with air. The commanders said we didn’t have to go down there unless we wanted to volunteer, but we were all good with it.”
About that moment, the missile exploded and Sandaker knew Livingston, a good friend of his, and Kennedy, were still underground where the silo and control center were.
“Concrete slabs the size of trailer houses were flying through the air,” said Sandaker.
“There were pieces or rebar the thickness of your arm twisted like pretzels. It was total devastation. I rolled under a truck to get away. When I stood up, it looked like a whole different world. The blast left a huge crater in the ground.”
Sandaker jumped in a truck and drove closer to the site to help remove the injured and get them medical aid as quickly as possible. He and others loaded several injured on the truck and sped back up to the approach area, where he was informed medical personnel would be.
“When we got there, no one was around,” he said. “They were all scared off by the explosion. So, I had to drive to a small town 15 miles away where Air Force medical personnel had set up in a parking lot.”
After dropping the men off, Sandaker was ordered to park the truck. But he defied those orders with an expletive and was insistent on returning to the site to find Livingston, a good friend of his, and Kennedy, his PTS team chief.
“I wasn’t going to leave until we found them,” he said.
As he was driving the truck back, Sandaker heard the cries “Help me, help me” over the radio and recognized it was Kennedy’s voice.
By the time Sandaker arrived on the scene again, Kennedy had been located, badly burned but alive.
Sandaker insisted on putting on his suit to search inside the silo area for Livingston, but two men are required to go in together. A civilian who claimed he was qualified to wear the suit was approved to go with Sandaker.
“We had to crawl under a fence with our suits on to get in and it was like an obstacle course with concrete and metal everywhere,” Sandaker recalls. “The whole place was burning and there was smoke everywhere.”
The civilian with Sandaker eventually became exhausted and was running out of air so the two men evacuated.
Livingston was soon found by security police. Sandaker and two other men placed him in the back of a truck to get him help. Sandaker and one doctor who had remained on site, rode in the back with him.
“I held David in my arms as we drove,” Sandaker said, somberly.
Once they arrived at a different missile site, a helicopter took Livingston to the hospital in Little Rock, where he later passed away.
Sandaker admitted that he didn’t speak much about the incident for many years until he was interviewed for a book and a documentary a few years ago.
“I now realize I need to tell this story so David isn’t forgotten,” Sandaker said. “He was a good man.”