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Decades Later, Sickness Among Airmen After a Hydrogen Bomb A
Sat Apr 1, 2017 08:43

Decades Later, Sickness Among Airmen After a Hydrogen Bomb Accident

Disaster Control
In 1966, a B-52 bomber on a Cold War nuclear patrol exploded over Spain, releasing four hydrogen bombs. Fifty years later, Air Force veterans involved with the cleanup are sick and want recognition. By KASSIE BRACKEN on Publish Date June 12, 2016. Photo by Kit Talbot. Watch in

Alarms sounded on United States Air Force bases in Spain and officers began packing all the low-ranking troops they could grab onto buses for a secret mission. There were cooks, grocery clerks and even musicians from the Air Force band.

Hydrogen Bombs' Aftermath
This is the first of two articles on the aftermath of a 1966 crash of a United States Air Force bomber carrying four hydrogen bombs and the lingering problems it has caused for a group of American servicemen and the small Spanish village of Palomares.

Sickness Among Airmen Decades After a Hydrogen Bomb AccidentJUNE 19, 2016

Even Without Blast, 4 Hydrogen Bombs From ’66 Scar Spanish VillageJUNE 20, 2016

It was a late winter night in 1966 and a fully loaded B-52 bomber on a Cold War nuclear patrol had collided with a refueling jet high over the Spanish coast, freeing four hydrogen bombs that went tumbling toward a farming village called Palomares, a patchwork of small fields and tile-roofed white houses in an out-of-the-way corner of Spain’s rugged southern coast that had changed little since Roman times.

It was one of the biggest nuclear accidents in history, and the United States wanted it cleaned up quickly and quietly. But if the men getting onto buses were told anything about the Air Force’s plan for them to clean up spilled radioactive material, it was usually, “Don’t worry.”

“There was no talk about radiation or plutonium or anything else,” said Frank B. Thompson, a then 22-year-old trombone player who spent days searching contaminated fields without protective equipment or even a change of clothes. “They told us it was safe, and we were dumb enough, I guess, to believe them.”

Mr. Thompson, 72, now has cancer in his liver, a lung and a kidney. He pays $2,200 a month for treatment that would be free at a Veterans Affairs hospital if the Air Force recognized him as a victim of radiation.

But for 50 years, the Air Force has maintained that there was no harmful radiation at the crash site. It says the danger of contamination was minimal and strict safety measures ensured that all of the 1,600 troops who cleaned it up were protected.

Interviews with dozens of men like Mr. Thompson and details from never before published declassified documents tell a different story. Radiation near the bombs was so high it sent the military’s monitoring equipment off the scales. Troops spent months shoveling toxic dust, wearing little more protection than cotton fatigues.

And when tests taken during the cleanup suggested men had alarmingly high plutonium contamination, the Air Force threw out the results, calling them “clearly unrealistic.”

John H. Garman was in the United States Air Force when, in 1966, a fully loaded B-52 bomber on a Cold War nuclear patrol collided with a refueling jet high over the Spanish coast, freeing four hydrogen bombs that went tumbling toward a coastal farming village called Palomares.

Mr. Garman was among those who were first on the scene of the crash. Credit Raymond McCrea Jones for The New York Times

In the decades since, the Air Force has purposefully kept radiation test results out of the men’s medical files and resisted calls to retest them, even when the calls came from one of the Air Force’s own studies.

Many men say they are suffering with the crippling effects of plutonium poisoning. Of 40 veterans who helped with the cleanup who The New York Times identified, 21 had cancer. Nine had died from it.

It is impossible to connect individual cancers to a single exposure to radiation. And no formal mortality study has ever been done to determine whether there is an elevated incidence of disease. The only evidence the men have to rely on are anecdotes of friends they watched wither away.

“John Young, dead of cancer ... Dudley Easton, cancer ... Furmanksi, cancer,” said Larry L. Slone, 76, in an interview, laboring through tremors caused by a neurological disorder.

At the crash site, Mr. Slone, a military police officer at the time, said he was given a plastic bag and told to pick up radioactive fragments with his bare hands. “A couple times they checked me with a Geiger counter and it went clear off the scale,” he said. “But they never took my name, never followed up with me.”

Monitoring of the village in Spain has also been haphazard, declassified documents show. The United States promised to pay for a public health program to monitor the long-term effects of radiation there, but for decades provided little funding.

Until the 1980s, Spanish scientists often relied on broken and outdated equipment, and lacked the resources to follow up on potential ramifications, including leukemia deaths in children. Today, several fenced-off areas are still contaminated, and the long-term health effect on villagers is poorly understood.

Many of the Americans who cleaned up after the bombs are trying to get full health care coverage and disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs. But the department relies on Air Force records, and since the Air Force records say no one was harmed in Palomares, the agency rejects claims again and again.

The Air Force also denies any harm was done to 500 other veterans who cleaned up a nearly identical crash in Thule, Greenland, in 1968. Those veterans tried to sue the Defense Department in 1995, but the case was dismissed because federal law shields the military from negligence claims by troops. All of the named plaintiffs have since died of cancer.

In a statement, the Air Force Medical Service said it had recently used modern techniques to reassess the radiation risk to veterans who cleaned up the Palomares accident and “adverse acute health effects were neither expected nor observed, and long-term risks for increased incidence of cancer to the bone, liver and lungs were low.”

The toxic aftermath of war is often vexing to untangle. Damage is hard to quantify and all but impossible to connect to later problems.

Recognizing this, Congress has passed laws in the past to give automatic benefits to veterans of a few specific exposures — Agent Orange in Vietnam or the atomic tests in Nevada, among others. But no such law exists for the men who cleaned up Palomares.

If the men could prove they were harmed by radiation, they would have all costs for their associated medical care covered and would get a modest disability pension. But proof from a secret mission to clean up an invisible poison decades ago has proved elusive. So each time the men apply, the Air Force says they were not harmed and the department hands out denials.

“First they denied I was even there, then they denied there was any radiation,” said Ronald R. Howell, 71, who recently had a brain tumor removed. “I submit a claim, and they deny.

I submit appeal, and they deny. Now I’m all out of appeals.” He sighed, then continued. “Pretty soon, we’ll all be dead and they will have succeeded at covering this whole thing up.”
The debris of a crashed American plane in January 1966 in Palomares, Spain.
Credit Kit Talbot
The Day the Bombs Fell

A 23-year-old military police officer named John H. Garman arrived by helicopter at the crash site on Jan. 17, 1966, a few hours after the bombs blew.

“It was just chaos,” Mr. Garman, now 74, said in an interview at his home in Pahrump, Nev. “Wreckage was all over the village. A big part of the bomber had crashed down in the yard of the school.”

He was one of the first on the scene, and joined a half-dozen others to hunt for the four missing nuclear weapons. One bomb had thudded into a soft sandbank near the beach and crumpled but remained intact. Another had dropped into the ocean, where it was found unbroken two months later, after a frenzied hunt.

The other two hit hard and exploded, leaving house-size craters on either side of the village, according to a secret Atomic Energy Commission report that has since been declassified.

Built-in safeguards prevented nuclear detonations, but explosives surrounding the radioactive cores blasted a fine dust of plutonium over a patchwork of houses and fields full of ripe, red tomatoes.

A throng of residents led Mr. Garman to the plutonium-covered craters, where they peered down at the shattered wreckage, not knowing what to do. “We didn’t have any radiation detectors yet, so we had no idea if we were in danger,” he said. “We just stood there looking down at the hole.”

Atomic Energy Commission scientists soon arrived and took Mr. Garman’s clothes because they were contaminated, he said, but told him he would be fine. Twelve years later, he got bladder cancer.

Plutonium does not emit the type of penetrating radiation often associated with nuclear blasts, which causes immediately obvious health effects, such as burns. It shoots off alpha particles that travel only a few inches and cannot penetrate the skin.

Outside the body, scientists say, it is relatively harmless, but specks absorbed in the body, usually through inhaling dust, shoot off a continuous shower of radioactive particles thousands of times a minute, gradually exacting damage that can cause cancer and other diseases decades later.

A microgram, or a millionth of a gram, in the body is considered potentially harmful. According to declassified Atomic Energy Commission reports, the bombs at Palomares released an estimated seven pounds — more than 3 billion micrograms.

Victor B. Skaar, now 79, worked with the testing team at the crash site. “Did we follow protocol?” he said. “Hell, no. We had neither the time nor the equipment.” Credit Raymond McCrea Jones for The New York Times
The day after the crash, busloads of troops started arriving from United States bases, bringing radiation-detection equipment.

William Jackson, a young Air Force lieutenant, helped with some of the first testing near the craters, using a hand-held alpha particle counter that could measure up to two million alpha particles per minute.

“Almost everywhere we pointed the machine it pegged at the highest reading,” he said. “But we were told that type of radiation would not penetrate the skin. We were told it was safe.”

The Pentagon focused on finding the bomb lost in the ocean and largely ignored the danger of loose plutonium, the Air Force personnel at the site said.

Troops traipsed needlessly through highly contaminated tomato fields with no safety gear. Many came to gawk at the shattered bombs in the first few days.

“Once I went to check on the G. I.s and found them dangling their legs into the crater,” Mr. Jackson said. “Just sitting there, eating their box lunches.”

Accounts of the crash became front-page news in Europe and the United States. American and Spanish officials immediately tried to cover up the accident and play down the risk.

They blocked off the village and denied nuclear weapons or radiation were involved in the crash. When an American reporter spotted men wearing white coveralls, a military press officer told him, “Oh, they’re members of the postal detachment.”

Once existence of the bombs leaked, more than a month later, the United States admitted that one bomb, not two, had “cracked,” but had released only a “small amount of basically harmless radiation.”

Today the two exploded warheads would be known as dirty bombs, and would probably cause evacuations. At the time, in order to minimize the significance of the blast, the Air Force let villagers remain in place.

Officials invited the news media to witness Spain’s minister of information, Manuel Fraga Iribarne, and United States ambassador, Angier Biddle Duke, splashing on a nearby beach to show the area was safe. Mr. Duke told reporters, “If this is radioactivity, I love it.”
Air Force personnel wearing masks and gloves working in the fields where three of the bombs were found.
Credit U.S. Air Force
A Hurried Cleanup

Fearing that the bombs could damage the tourism industry, Spain insisted the mess be cleaned up before summer.

Within days, troops were hacking down contaminated fields of tomato vines with machetes. Though scientists overseeing the cleanup knew plutonium dust posed the greatest danger, military commanders had the troops throw thousands of truckloads of vines into chipping machines, then burned much of the debris near the village.

Some men doing the dustiest work were given coveralls and paper surgical masks for safety, but a later report by the Defense Nuclear Agency said, “It is doubtful that the use of the surgical mask served more than a psychological barrier.”

“If it did something for your psychology to wear one, you were privileged to wear one,” the chief scientific adviser, Dr. Wright H. Langham, told Atomic Energy colleagues in a secret briefing afterward. “It wouldn’t do you any good in the way of protection, but if you felt better, we let you wear it.”

Commenting on safety at the cleanup, Dr. Langham, who is perhaps best known now for his role in secret experiments in which hospital patients in the United States were unwittingly injected with plutonium, told colleagues, “Most of the time it would hardly meet the standards of the health physics manuals.”

The Air Force bought tons of contaminated tomatoes from local fields that the Spanish public refused to eat. To assure the public there was no danger, commanders fed the tomatoes to the troops. Though the risk from eating plutonium is much lower than the risk from inhaling it, it is still not safe.

Mr. Garman’s 1979 military clinical records, which indicate plutonium exposure in Spain. Credit Raymond McCrea Jones for The New York Times
“Breakfast, lunch and dinner. We had them until we were sick of them,” said Wayne Hugart, 74, who was a military police officer at the site. “They kept saying there was nothing wrong with them.”

In all, the Air Force cut down 600 acres of crops and plowed under the contaminated dirt. Troops scooped up 5,300 barrels of soil from the most radioactive areas near the craters and loaded the barrels on ships to be buried in a secure nuclear waste storage site in South Carolina.

Spanish and American authorities assured villagers that they had nothing to fear. The villagers, accustomed to living in a dictatorship, did little to protest. “Even if some people here might have wanted to know more, Franco was in charge, so everybody was too scared to ask anything,” said Antonio Latorre, a villager who is now 78.

To assure villagers their homes were safe, the Air Force sent young airmen into local houses with hand-held radiation detectors. Peter M. Ricard, then a 20-year-old cook with no training on the equipment, remembers being told to perform scans of anything locals wanted, but to keep his detector turned off.

“We were just supposed to feign our readings so we didn’t cause turmoil with the natives,” he said in an interview. “I often think about that now. I wasn’t too smart back then. They say do it and you just say, ‘Yes, sir.’”
United States Air Force personnel working on cleanup and recovery were often fed local produce from Palomares. Credit Kit Talbot
Tests Thrown Out

During the cleanup, a medical team gathered more than 1,500 urine samples from the cleanup crew to calculate how much plutonium they were absorbing. The higher the level in the samples, the greater the health hazard.

Continue reading the main story at

The records of those tests remain perhaps the most prominent artifact from the cleanup. They show about only 10 of the men absorbed more

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