(Optional music video to accompany this story: North Carolina's greatest band, the Avett Brothers, performing "Die Die Die.")
In eastern North Carolina sits the small town of Goldsboro. It contains an Air Force base, two Bojangles, and around 36,000 people. Also situated somewhere near the town: Two unexploded hydrogen bombs.
On Friday, the British newspaper the Guardian published a "secret" document, declassified for the first time in five decades, which revealed that two Mark-39 hydrogen bombs were accidentally dropped from an American B-52 over Goldsboro on January 23, 1961. (Three days after JFK's inauguration.) The bombs contained the explosive power of 4 million tons of TNT. They were 260 times were powerful than the device that destroyed Hiroshima. And the only reason they didn't explode, amazingly, was a last-ditch safeguard—a low-voltage switch "designed to prevent unintended detonation"—that kicked in at the last minute after three other safeguards had failed.
Thousands of people would have been instantly killed. The the resulting nuclear fallout would have reached up the East Coast to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and even New York City. Basically, the worst man-made disaster in United States history was almost caused by our own military. This graph, found via The Atlantic Wire, shows how fucking horrible the whole situation would have been:
So, full disclosure, I grew up 20 minutes away from Goldsboro, in an even smaller town nearby. And what's really strange is that I've heard rumors about these bombs ever since I was a kid. Like, I grew up being told by friends who "knew stuff" that a certain swamp housed unexploded nuclear bombs—and that nothing could stop the county from becoming destroyed were some mad man ever to find them. This was the subject of much, much speculation.
Every kid grows up with these urban legends. Third-graders in the Pacific Northwest probably have an older cousin who has seen Bigfoot's tracks. Somewhere in the Northeast is a "killer clown" who only shows up on Halloween. As I grew up, I forgot about the hunt for the bombs that my friends once promised to go on. It was just an urban legend. A weird story that originated at the military base and took on a life of its own.
Except, well no, there were actual nuclear fucking bombs in my backyard. For once the legends are true. This is a weird feeling you don't really feel that often.