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Details of 1957 H-Bomb Accident Told by Crewmembers

August 29, 1986

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) _ A crewman aboard an Air Force bomber yelled ″bombs away″ as the plane lurched upward after accidentally dropping a hydrogen bomb 29 years ago, the pilot says.

Richard ″Dick″ Meyer, 62, a retired lieutenant colonel, told the El Paso (Texas) Times that a crewman between the wings and the tail of the aircraft saw what had happened.

″Simultaneously, he called, ‘Bombs away,’ and the plane lurched upward about 1,000 feet when it lost so much weight at once,″ Meyer said.

″And someone yelled, ‘Oh, (expletive).’ It might have been me,″ Meyer said.

There was no nuclear blast, but non-nuclear high explosives in the Mark 17 bomb detonated when it hit the ground 4 1/2 miles south of the control tower at Albuquerque’s Kirtland Air Force Base on May 22, 1957.

The explosion killed a cow, but no one was injured when the bomb hit an uninhabited area, creating a crater about 12 feet deep and 25 feet wide.

Members of the crew said they did not have the materials on board to arm the bomb as a weapon.

The accident was first confirmed by the Air Force in 1981. But no specifics were released until Wednesday, when the Albuquerque Journal published an account based on documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The El Paso Times published interviews with three of the crewmembers Friday.

Though they can laugh about it now, four of the 13 men aboard the Air Force B-36 bomber say it was serious the day the 42,000-pound hydrogen bomb fell 1,700 feet to the ground.

″It’s one of those things that’s terrifying at the time, but is funny afterward,″ George Houston, 61, the flight’s radio operator, told The Associated Press in an interview from his home in Orangevale, Calif., on Thursday.

Houston said the accident occurred when the plane hit rough air and the navigator grabbed the bomb release mechanism to keep from falling. At first, he said, the crew thought the man might have gone down with the bomb.

But the navigator, who had been trying to secure the bomb for landing, crawled back from the bomb bay ″whiter than any sheet you ever saw.″

Jack Resen was an electronic officer for the 95th Bomb Wing at Biggs Air Force Base in El Paso, where the flight originated.

He told the El Paso paper that the young lieutenant ″came charging out of the bomb bay saying, ‘I didn’t touch anything. I didn’t touch anything.’ It really made me laugh.″

Jack Williams, 54, now a budget analyst for the Army at Fort Bliss, Texas, was a flight engineer aboard the aircraft.

Williams said they heard a dull thud when the bomb hit. Meyer said the bomb produced ″more dust cloud than anything.″

Houston blamed the accident on what he described as an extremely awkward procedure in which an officer, usually the navigator, had to climb around the bomb at the start and end of each flight ″hanging literally by his toes″ to set a large pin that secured the bomb.

The bomb bay doors were closed, ″but it took them with it,″ Houston said.

Meyer and Williams identified the navigator as 1st Lt. Bob Carp, with whom they have lost contact.

Houston said the crew ″knew instantly we’d dropped the bomb″ when the plane lurched upward.

Houston said he radioed that they had dropped a hydrogen bomb.

″We were met by quite a group of VIPs when we landed,″ he added. All the crew members were questioned extensively, but he said none was disciplined to his knowledge.

Meyer said the bomb was the first hydrogen bomb built to be carried by aircraft.

Dr. Stan Norris, a specialist on nuclear weapons with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Journal that researchers believe the bomb had a nuclear explosive yield of 10 megatons, about 625 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in World War II.

″It is possibly the most powerful bomb ever made,″ Norris said. The largest U.S. nuclear weapon has a yield of about 9 megatons.

Meyer, Williams and Resen said they were surprised to see the story published after so many years of secrecy.

Williams and Meyer said they were told not to speak about the incident.

Almost a year later, on March 11, 1958, a B-47 bomber on a training mission from Hunter Air Force Base, Ga., accidentally dropped an unarmed hydrogen bomb in the backyard of a home in Mars Bluff, S.C.

The bomb’s trigger went off, and the explosion damaged six homes and a church and injured six people, none seriously. There no release of radiation, officials said.

Helen Gregg Holliday was 6 years old when the bomb fell. Twenty-five years later, she recalled the events that day. ″It was a loud noise ... a very loud noise,″ she said. ″It was raining dirt and debris from the sky. I was scared.″

The Air Force settled a $300,000 damage suit filed by the Gregg family over damage to their home for $54,000.

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