by ABC News
January 17, 2016
Fifty years ago today, the United States of America dropped four nuclear bombs on Spain. It was an accident.
On the morning of Jan. 17, 1966, an American B-52 bomber was flying a secret mission over Cold War Europe when it collided with a refueling tanker. Seven airmen involved, including all four members of the refueling tanker’s crew, were killed. But American officials feared much worse when they learned that the bomber’s payload, four B28 hydrogen bombs, had broken free in the collision and tumbled down towards the small Mediterranean beach town of Palomares, Spain.
Fail safe systems in the weapons mostly worked and none of the four bombs experienced a nuclear reaction upon impact, sparing the region and its hundreds of inhabitants from multiple nuclear blasts that would’ve dwarfed the explosion over Hiroshima. “Only a fortunate stroke of luck saved the Spanish population of the area from catastrophe,” a Soviet official said at the time.
But the conventional high explosives on two of the bombs did detonate, essentially turning those weapons into dirty bombs that blasted plutonium radiation across the countryside.
The story took another dramatic turn when hundreds of American soldiers, who rushed to the accident site to search for the bombs, were only able to locate three of four. As the exhausting search on land continued fruitlessly, military officials turned to the Mediterranean and launched what was then the most complex deep-water search and recovery operation in history – all while Russian ships and submarines lingered nearby, threatening to snatch the missing nuke for themselves.
A half century later, there is little obvious evidence of the dramatic incident in Palomares, short of a chain link fence and warning signs surrounding an area in which one of the bombs fell and radiation seeped into the ground. Not far away, on the beach, there is nothing to mark where another crashed down intact – and members of a nearby nudist colony stroll by in their natural glory seemingly without a care that they’re walking within feet of a five-decade-old nuclear accident.
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