This Day in History (5-Feb-1958) – A hydrogen bomb is lost by the United States Air Force near Savannah, Georgia

On the night of February 5, 1958 a B-47 Stratojet bomber carrying a hydrogen bomb, off the Georgia coast collided with an F-86 Saberjet fighter at 36,000 feet. The collision destroyed the fighter and severely damaged a wing of the bomber, leaving one of its engines partially dislodged. The bomber’s pilot, was instructed to jettison the H-bomb before attempting a landing. The incident is the definition of a Broken Arrow scenario — a situation where a nuclear weapon is released, but without intent to harm. Richardson dropped the bomb into the shallow waters of Wassaw Slough, near the mouth of the Savannah River, a few miles from the city of Tybee Island, where he believed the bomb would be swiftly recovered. Recently declassified documents show that the bomb was an “Mk-15, Mod O” hydrogen bomb, weighing four tons, packing more than 100 times the explosive punch of the one that incinerated Hiroshima and capable of creating a 20-30 kilometer thermal blast radius.

Soon search and rescue teams were sent to the site. Wassaw Slough was mysteriously cordoned off by Air Force troops. For six weeks, the Air Force looked for the bomb without success. Underwater divers scoured the depths, troops tromped through nearby salt marshes, and a blimp hovered over the area attempting to spot a hole or crater in the beach or swamp. Then just a month later, the search was abruptly halted. The affair of the missing H-bomb was discreetly covered up. The end of the search was noted in a partially declassified memo from the Pentagon to the Atomic Energy Commission, in which the Air Force politely requested a new H-bomb to replace the one it had lost. The bomb still lies somewhere off the coast 57 years later, with a 2001 recovery effort carrried out by the United States Air Force unsuccessful. The current location of the MK-15 nuclear bomb is unknown, thanks to the passage of time and the twenty-three hurricanes and tropical storms that have hit the area since 1958. The condition of the bomb is an enigma — the outer metal alloy shell should be fine if it is resting in a coffin of silt. But if the bomb has been disturbed and came in contact with salt water, the metal would eventually erode, allowing the contents to seep out and distributing uranium into the water.


This Day in History (28-Jan-1986) – Challenger explodes

The space shuttle Challenger was one of NASA’s greatest triumphs. It was the second shuttle to reach space, in April 1983. It successfully completed nine milestone missions. Challenger was the vehicle by which several cultural firsts happened in the space shuttle program. The first American female astronautrode up on Challenger on STS-7 in June 1983.  The first African-American reached space on STS-8. On STS-41G in 1984, two women, flew on one mission for the first time, as well as the first Canadian, Marc Garneau. Other milestones Challenger marked included the first night launch and landing (STS-8) and the first operational Spacelab flight (STS-51B).

Christa McAuliffe, a 37-year-old high school social studies teacher from New Hampshire, won a competition that earned her a place among the seven-member crew of the Challenger’s tenth mission. She underwent months of shuttle training but then, beginning January 23, was forced to wait six long days as the Challenger’s launch countdown was repeatedly delayed because of weather and technical problems. Finally, on January 28, Challenger was launched at 11:38 a.m. Eastern time in front of more media attention than usual, as it was carrying the first teacher to go in space. Seventy-three seconds later, hundreds on the ground, including Christa’s family, stared in disbelief as the shuttle exploded in a forking plume of smoke and fire. Millions more watched the wrenching tragedy unfold on live television. There were no survivors.  President Ronald Reagan appointed a special commission headed by former secretary of state William Rogers and former astronaut Neil Armstrong. The investigation determined that the explosion was caused by the failure of an “O-ring” seal in one of the two solid-fuel rockets. The elastic O-ring did not respond as expected because of the cold temperature at launch time, which began a chain of events that resulted in the massive explosion.

Challenger’s explosion changed the space shuttle program in several ways. Plans to fly other civilians in space (such as journalists) were shelved for 22 years. Satellite launches were shifted from the shuttle to reusable rockets. On February 1, 2003, a second space-shuttle disaster rocked when Columbia disintegrated upon reentry of the Earth’s atmosphere. All aboard were killed including the first Indian-American astronaut and first Indian woman in space, Kalpana Chawla.


This Day in History (27-Dec-1975) – Coal mine explodes in Chasnala, Dhanbad

At 1:35 pm, on 27 December 1975, an explosion rocked the Chasnala Colliery in Dhanbad, India.  The explosion was most likely caused by sparks from equipment igniting a pocket of flammable methane gas.  Clouds of coal dust raised by the explosion and accompanying shock wave contribute to these sorts of mine explosions, making the flames self-sustaining. The blast occurred at the joint horizon of pits 1 and 2 in the deep mines of Chasnala colliery that damaged the barrier separating the mine from the water body lying just above the pit. The explosion was so severe that the mine collapsed, and nearly 5Cr gallons of water from a nearby reservoir rushed into the pits at a rate of seven million gallons per minute.  Those miners who weren’t killed in the blast now found themselves trapped under debris, or drowned as the water quickly filled the mine.

Pumps were brought in from Poland, Russia and US to drain out water from the inundated mine but to no avail. Ministers from the Centre and state kept camping at Chasnala to expedite rescue operation. But the first dead body could come out only on the 26th day of the accident with the help of Russian pumps. Many bodies were rendered beyond recognition and many of them were identified with the cap-lamp allotted to them for entering the mine. Rescue workers continued their efforts to dig out bodies and survivors.  Sadly, there were no survivors, and most of the bodies were never recovered.

The local workers’ union claimed a total death toll of almost 700 people.  The government’s official death toll, however, is 372.  The Chasnala Colliery’s records were poorly kept, and many bodies were never recovered, so there is no way of knowing how many miners actually perished in the Chasnala Mine Disaster.  The India Iron and Steel Company, who owned the Chasnala Colliery, has said that it conformed to international mining standards in the construction and maintenance of  the Chasnala Colliery.

The Chasnala Disaster was one of the worst in Indian history.  The nationalization of Indian mining since then has contributed to a significant decrease in the incidence of mining accidents in that country. The Chasnala Disaster inspired the 1979 film Kaala Patthar, directed by Yash Chopra.


This Day in History (28-Jul-1945) – Plane crashes into Empire State Building

The B-25 Mitchell bomber, with Colonel William Smith as a pilot and two more personnel aboard, was flying from New Bedford, Massachusetts, to LaGuardia Airport in New York City. As it came into the metropolitan area on that Saturday morning, the fog was particularly thick. Air-traffic controllers instructed the plane to fly to Newark Airport instead. The last transmission from the LaGuardia tower to the plane was a foreboding warning: “From where I’m sitting, I can’t see the top of the Empire State Building.” Confronted with dense fog, pilot dropped the bomber low to regain visibility, where Smith found himself in the middle of Manhattan, surrounded by skyscrapers. At first, the bomber was headed directly for the New York Central Building but at the last minute, Smith was able to bank west and miss it. Unfortunately, this put him in line for another skyscraper. Smith managed to miss several skyscrapers until he was headed for the Empire State Building. At the last minute, Smith tried to get the bomber to climb and twist away, but it was too late. At 9:49 a.m., the ten-ton, B-25 bomber smashed into the north side of the Empire State Building, near the 79th floor.

Upon impact, the plane’s jet fuel exploded, filling the interior of the building with flames all the way down to the 75th floor and sending flames out of the hole the plane had ripped open in the building’s side. One engine from the plane went straight through the building and landed in a penthouse apartment across the street. Other plane parts ended up embedded in and on top of nearby buildings. The other engine snapped an elevator cable while at least one woman was riding in the elevator car. The emergency auto brake saved the woman from crashing to the bottom, but the engine fell down the shaft and landed on top of it. Quick-thinking rescuers pulled the woman from the elevator, saving her life. Since it was a Saturday, fewer workers than normal were in the building. Only 11 people in the building were killed, some suffering burns from the fiery jet fuel and others after being thrown out of the building. The three people on the plane were also killed. An 18 foot by 20 foot hole was left in the side of the Empire State Building.  However its structural integrity was not affected.



This Day in History (12-Jul-1961) – Pune floods due to failure of the Khadakwasla and Panshet dams

In July 1961, the new under-construction Panshet dam had started developing some problems, even before it was complete. Against some recommendations, the dam was being filled up during the 1961 monsoon season. Cracks started developing and yet there was lot of debate on whether the dam was in real imminent danger. A valiant last-ditch effort by the Army Jawans managed to delay the inevitable by a few hours. These few hours helped a lot. If not for this great effort, where thousands of sand bags were deployed, the dam would have burst in the middle of the night, creating havoc for the sleeping residents of Pune. The few hours delay meant that the burst happened early morning and the wall of flood waters reached Pune later in the morning. The deluge of flood waters of Panshet also broke the smaller Khadakwasla dam, further downstream.

Residents started getting some warnings early in the morning and the authorities started moving out the residents living near the riverside. The low lying areas of the old city were almost completely submerged. Except for the Bund Garden Bridge, all the bridges were under water as well. Water rushed into the old ‘Peths’ and along Karve Road, Deccan Gymkhana areas. For many hours, the high water levels persisted. More than 100,000 families need to be relocated and the death toll exceeds 2,000, though no offical numbers are available.

The floods completely cutoff the electric and water supply. July 12th was a dark, rainy night in. The cleanup and rebuilding took many months. The old riverside city landscape changed forever. New localities (such as Lokmanya Nagar, Gokhale Nagar, etc.) were setup to resettle some of the flood affected citizens. Most of the bridges were damaged and needed fixing and in some cases complete rebuilding. With Khadakwasla and Panshet dams completely drained, there was no water supply for the city. The Peshwa era Katraj water aqueduct was used to meet some water requirements. Wells were another source. Wadas that had wells had to prominently list ‘Well’ on their main door – so that, the water source could be be made available.



This Day in History (23-Jun-1985) – Air India Boeing 747 ‘Kanishka’ Crashes into the Atlantic Ocean

Shortly after Operation Blue Star, members of the Khalistan movement in Canada gather people to avenge the attacks on the Golden Temple. On June 23rd 1985, a certain Manjit Singh turned up to check in for Canadian Pacific airlines flight from Vancouver to Toronto. He asked the check in agent to transfer his bags to Air India flight 181 and then to flight 182. Singh was never identified after check in and the Canadian Pacific airlines flight from Toronto to Montreal departed without him, but with his bag on the flight.

The Canadian Pacific airlines flight landed in Toronto and Singh’s bag were transferred to Air India’s flight 182. All bags were to be either X ray screened, or checked by hand. The break down of an X-ray machine that day led to security officials using PDD-4 explosive sniffer which made a loud scream if it detected an explosive. This device made a low beep when passed near a maroon suitcase with a zipper going all around. Since officials did not know what to do if the machine made a low beep, they let the bag go. A bomb exploded on board while the aircraft was at an altitude of 31,000 feet. All 329 on board the flight, including passengers and crew members, perished in this deadly air disaster. The accident proved to be the worst aviation disaster over sea. The culprit, as it was later detected, was a suitcase in the forward cargo hold which held explosives responsible for this disaster.

On the same day, a man by the name L. Singh in Vancouver checked in on a Canadian Pacific flight from Vancouver to Tokyo with one piece of luggage which was supposed to be transferred to Air India flight 301 to Bangkok. L. Singh was later never identified and never boarded the flight, though his bag went on the flight to Tokyo. About an hour after Kanishka crashed, a bomb went off in a bag at Tokyo’s Narita airport killing two baggage handlers and injuring four in the process. This bomb was intended for the Air India flight 301 from Tokyo to Bangkok, but exploded before it was loaded onto the aircraft. No Sikh extremist organisation claimed responsibility of either of the events.



This Day in History (26-Apr-1986) – Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (Russia) Experiences a Meltdown

The Chernobyl Power Complex, lying about 130 km north of Kiev, Ukraine, consisted of four nuclear reactors of the RBMK-1000 design. On 25 April, prior to a routine shutdown, the reactor crew at Chernobyl 4 began preparing for a test to determine how long turbines would spin and supply power to the main circulating pumps following a loss of main electrical power supply.  A series of operator actions, including the disabling of automatic shutdown mechanisms, preceded the attempted test early on 26 April. By the time that the operator moved to shut down the reactor, the reactor was in an extremely unstable condition. The crew initiated an emergency shutdown in response. However the amount of power generated actually rocketed up and blew the seals on the reactor vessel.

Firefighters were on the scene within minutes to contain the blaze, with additional ground teams and helicopters arriving from as far away as Kiev in two hours. By 6:35am, the external fires were extinguished and only the inferno inside Unit 4 continued to burn, as it would for another two weeks. From the second to tenth day after the accident, some 5000 tonnes of boron, dolomite, sand, clay and lead were dropped on to the burning core by helicopter in an effort to extinguish the blaze and limit the release of radioactive particles. Many citizens reported feeling ill by morning, coughing and vomiting involuntarily. It would not be until 2:00pm the following day — nearly 37 hours after the explosion — that officials began moving citizens out of the area. In a matter of hours, the town was empty.

The morning of April 28th, workers nearly 700 miles away at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden were stopped when trace amounts of radioactive material were found on their clothes. Swedish administrators discovered by midday that the isotopes were from another location. In time, the fallout would reach as far away as the mountainous regions of Scotland, exposing Europeans to harmful radiation largely without their knowledge — and, until the Swedes brought their information onto the national stage, without a Soviet admission of guilt.