The Palomares Incident
January 17, 1966 - It was on this day that a B-52 bomber collided with a KC-135 tanker while trying to refuel midair over the coast of Spain. Both planes blew apart and only 4 of the 11 crew members survived.
The B-52 was part of Operation Chrome Dome, a Cold War program that kept nukes airborne and close to the borders of the Soviet Union. Over an 8-year period there were at least 5 major accidents involving nuclear weapons. In this one, 4 hydrogen bombs dropped near the small fishing village of Palomares.
3 of the bombs landed on the ground, and the non-nuclear explosives in 2 of them exploded, causing the dispersal of highly radioactive material over a square mile of the countryside.
A local fisherman, Francisco Simó Orts witnessed the fourth bomb landing in the Mediterranean. He also rescued one of the surviving crew members.
After an 80-day search the final missing nuke was finally located on the steep wall of an undersea canyon, 2,550 feet deep. A manned submersible was able to grab it for a moment, but then it dropped into the darkness. 2 weeks later they found the bomb again, this time 400 feet deeper. Eventually it was successfully raised to the surface. A Navy diver lost his leg in a mishap during the retrieval operation.
Francisco Simó Orts, the good samaritan who pointed the Navy to the lost bomb would later petition for his share of the salvage rights. The estimated value was in the millions, but it's unclear if he ever got any money out of the military.
Despite a massive clean-up operation and the removal of 1,750 tons of topsoil, the area still registers high levels of radiation. Many of the Air Force personnel who participated in the search and scouring were later struck with higher-than-normal cancer rates and other health issues. Sadly, due to the top-secret nature of the operation, they faced an uphill battle securing any compensation for their suffering.
Here's an award-winning short film about the Palomares Incident.