Sunday, March 7, 2004


Never handle nuclear weapons on a Monday or Friday
By Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, III
March 7, 2004

SILVERDALE, WA. – A Navy Strategic Weapons Facility, Pacific handling crew came within inches of impacting a live Trident I C4 missile nuclear warhead during a Nov. 7, 2003 daylight dockside offload of the USS GEORGIA (SSBN - 729) at Submarine Base, Bangor, WA.

Subase Bangor is located on the Puget Sound’s Hood Canal, near Silverdale, WA.

President Bush was notified immediately of the “BROKEN ARROW,” a military code word alerting military governors of a nuclear weapons accident. SWFPAC was shut down instantly, prohibited from continued weapons handling evolutions. SWFPAC’s de-certification seriously limited essential stateside military operations.

The submarine’s missile was hoisted up into an access ladder left installed in tube #16 slicing a 9-inch hole in the nosecone. The lift was stopped inches from one of the missiles multiple warheads, a distance measured between thumb and forefinger.

Impact concussion, impalement, or crushing a nuclear warhead can cause deadly plutonium air and water radiation contamination, non-nuclear explosion, sympathetic non-nuclear explosions (other warheads), and missile propulsion fueled fires.

Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation ruled out terrorist involvement or connections.

Captain Lawrence Lehman relieved SWFPAC’s former CO, Captain Keith Lyles, on Dec. 19, 2003. Citing “loss of confidence” in Lyles, Navy officials gave no other details in their Christmas press release.

Rear Admiral Charles Young ordered Captain Lyles' relief for cause . Young is responsible for the care and feeding of all fleet ballistic missile submarine nuclear weapons.

Enlisted men on the handling team face court-martial or less severe disciplinary action. Petty officers Robert Steel was topside supervisor, Mark Hammock - topside team leader, and Christopher Hamilton a topside team member.

CDR Phillip Jackson (SWFPAC’s executive officer), and CDR Marshall Millett (weapons officer) were also canned in what’s been coined the “royal flush.”

A lift fitting must be attached to a missile before it’s hoisted up and out of the submarine silo. The tube hatch is opened, an access ladder affixed inside the silo above the nosecone. A sailor climbs down the ladder, attaches the lift fitting to the ICBM, then after connecting the hoist to the lift fitting, climbs back up on deck.

The access ladder must be removed from above the nosecone before the missile is lifted skyward.

On Nov. 7 2003, it wasn’t.

The handling crew took a break after making the bird in tube #16 ready for lift, leaving the access ladder in place. The sailors returned and began the hoist. The missile was lifted into the ladder slicing a large hole in the nosecone. The lift was stopped a instant before warhead impact.

The accident occurred late morning after one missile had been successfully offloaded, and another made ready for extraction.

SWFPAC failed a weeklong nuclear weapons acceptance inspection (NWAI), ending Dec. 16, 2003, attempting new certification after corrective measures were implemented. Capt. Lehman led the 40-man inspection team.

Lehman was ordered to relieve the fired Capt. Lyles on the spot - Dec. 19.

SWFPAC passed its second NWAI on Jan. 9, 2004 ending a 9-week shut down of the nuclear weapons handling facility.

Navy seniors have issued a gag order to all military and civilian personnel familiar with the accident that threatens court-martial or other federal punitive action if violated.

Prevailing winds that day blew at 5 to 10 mph over courthouses in Kitsap, Mason, and Thurston counties, and over the state house and government campus in Olympia. Also downwind the Belfair, WA. home of Congressman Norm Dicks.

No one was injured during the mishap or emergency response.

Other links:

SWFPAC, USS GEORGIA, and SUBASE Bangor are all situated within Navy Region Northwest, RMDL Len Hering commanding.

USS GEORGIA is assigned to Submarine Group NINE, RADM Melvin G. Williams, Jr. commanding.

Copyright 2004


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