Air Force Bases

Newspaper Article about the accident at Silo 373-4, Searcy AR

Death Toll 53 In Missile Site Disaster
THE SENTINEL-RECORD Wednesday, August 11, 1965, By Al Schay
SEARCY, Ark. (AP) - Air force investigators swarmed the scorched launch tube of a Titan 11 missile complex Tuesday to find the cause of an explosion and fire that killed 53 civilians in the "gun barrel" of America's mightiest ballistic missile.

The tragedy was the first in the history of the Titan system, which includes 54 complexes that have been fully operational since December 1963.

"We cannot make any sup-position whatsoever as to the cause of the explosion or fire, said Capt. Douglas Wood, public information officer for Little Rock Air Force Base, which commands the 18 Titan II silos ringing central Arkansas.

Wood said, the Air Force didn't know at this point what fed the fire.

Air Force personnel, working first in asbestos suits because of heat and later using contained air supplies because of smoke, pulled bodies out of the 155-foot deep launch tube throughout the night.

The missile, fully loaded with liquid fuel weighing 150 tons, was in the underground tube but did not burn, Wood said.

There was no danger of a nuclear explosion, he said, be-cause the warhead had been re-moved while the civilian work-men updated the physical plant of the complex.

About 100 friends, relatives, newsmen and spectators stood in small clusters and talked quietly beside the fence that separated them from the flat, landscaped two acres of land in which the complex is buried.

The Air Force said the explosion occurred at 1:30 p.m. Monday, trapping all but two of the 55 civilian workers inside the silo.

"These things are not supposed to happen," Wood said. "We have many, many safety features. But the fact that it did happen contradicts these safety factors. We're trying to find out what happened."

Seventeen members of a 30- man investigation force arrived here early Tuesday. They include men who experts in every phase of the Titan system, the Air Forces said.

President Johnson order the investigation after learning Monday night that the workmen were unaccounted for and presumed trapped inside the silo. Wood said," most of the victims suffocated."

The fire burn less then an hour," he said. "But up to 12 hours later smoke was still billowing in the silo.

The silo is covered at grown level by a 750-ton door, which moves laterally on rails. The door was closed. The increasing amount of smoke forced air out of the silo, and oxygen that remained was consumed by the fire, Wood said.

"It was nearly an airtight compartment," he said

Two of the civilians escaped by fleeing through an under-ground tunnel that connects the launch silo, an access room and the control center-the three chambers of every Titan II complex.

One of the survivors, 18-year-old Gary Wayne Lay of Clinton, said he saw the fire flash into the tube. Smoke billowed after it.

The power failed and, with the huge door above closed, the tube was filled with darkness. Lay said he groped his way around the launch tube until he found the door to the tunnel leading to the access room.

"It was horrible," he said from a hospital bed. "I could hear men screaming and crying. Somebody was yelling 'Help me! God, help me! couldn't see him in the dark.

Hubert A. Saunders, 59, Conway, the other survive was working above the door to the tunnel when the smoke burst around him. He dropped down and ran into the tunnel he said.

"The bird (the missile) was the gun barrel and so was I, so I got out of there," Saunders said.

Lay, a summer laborer on project, suffered burns of head, arms and legs. He listed in satisfactory condition here. Saunders, a paint foreman, suffered smoke inhalation and also was listed in satisfactory condition at the hospital here.

Detailed information about this accident can be found here.

General information about this silo can be found here.