Nuke Mishap Aboard Navy Sub
March 11, 2004
Mike Barber / Seattle Post-Intelligencer
In November 2003, a nuclear missile was allegedly damaged on a Trident submarine based in Bangor, Washington. A ladder ripped open a nuclear nosecone in what the Navy called 'broken arrow' incident. Top safety officials were immediately fire but the Navy refuses to either "confirm or deny" that the incidente ever took place.
Was it a "broken arrow" at the Trident submarine base in Bangor in November that led to the firing a month later of the Navy leadership overseeing nuclear weapons there?
The code words used by the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the most severe level of a nuclear weapon mishap reportedly were invoked Nov. 7 when a Trident I C4 missile was damaged while being removed from the submarine USS Georgia in Bangor.
The allegation was raised over the weekend at a watchdog Web site, jaghunters.blogspot.com, run by a former Navy officer, Walt Fitzpatrick of Bremerton.
Fitzpatrick has had a significant beef with the military justice system for 16 years, which the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has reported previously. Fitzpatrick yesterday said he drew upon Navy sources for his information about the missile incident, which has drawn the interest of US Rep. Norm Dicks.
Top Officers 'Sacked on the Spot'
As the P-I reported in December, the top leadership of the Strategic Weapons Facility, Pacific -- responsible for handling intercontinental ballistic missiles at Bangor -- was sacked on the spot. Three officers have been reassigned and three enlisted men face courts-martial on lesser charges.
According to Fitzpatrick, the Nov. 7 incident happened when the missile from tube No. 16 was hauled up and smacked into an access ladder that had been left in the tube, slicing a 9-inch hole in the missile's nose cone.
The ladder is placed inside the silo after the tube hatch is opened so a sailor can climb inside to attach a hoist to lift the intercontinental ballistic missile out of the tube. After attaching the hoist, the sailor climbs out and the ladder is to be removed before the missile is lifted out.
A Radiation Leak or Explosion Believed 'Possible'
The crew members reportedly took a break, and when they returned, they began to hoist out the missile without removing the ladder, damaging the nose cone. Although there would not have been a nuclear explosion, a radiation release or non-nuclear explosion was possible, Fitzpatrick claims.
That didn't happen, though the base's civilian emergency services allies yesterday wanted to know more.
Kitsap County Sheriff Steve Boyer said yesterday that his office was not notified of any incident involving nuclear-tipped missiles last fall. Boyer was surprised yesterday when he heard of the incident from a reporter. He described cooperation with the Navy as excellent, particularly since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Navy Failed to Notify Civilian Officials of Danger
Phyllis Mann, who as director of Kitsap County's Emergency Management Division works with the Navy and monitors Navy incidents, said county and state records show no "broken arrow" was reported as is required. Defense Department directives require the FBI as lead civilian agency to be notified, as well as local and state emergency services.
"Based upon our relationships with the bases, we would expect to be notified if there was a public safety health threat," Mann said.
She's not surprised, however. If the missile was banged up but nothing was released, reporting of the incident might not be required.
Navy Will Still 'Neither Confirm nor Deny' Close Call
Navy officials here and in Washington, DC, refused to discuss the allegations, citing a strict Defense Department "neither confirm nor deny" directive concerning nuclear weapons to keep potential or real enemies guessing.
Regarding the disciplinary action meted out in December and the reasons behind it, Pam Sims, spokeswoman for the Strategic Systems Program in Washington, DC, that oversees the strategic weapons units on each coast, could say little.
"Safety is paramount in everything we do in the Navy and a primary focus for our leadership at every level of command," she said.
The neither-confirm-nor-deny policy, however, handcuffs the Navy from explaining the incident, and stirred up questions from Dicks and activists who have been monitoring the base for years.
"We are working with the Navy to see what may have happened and to see what guidelines they have" for weapons accidents, said George Behan, spokesman for Dicks, who sits on key defense committees.
Dicks' office yesterday contacted Rear Adm. Charles Young, head of the Strategic Systems Program in the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the nation's "nuclear Navy."
The issue echoes concerns raised in January by Glen Milner, 52, a peace activist and member of Ground Zero, a citizens group that has protested outside Bangor over the nuclear weapons issue for years and filed lawsuits over safety concerns.
"What would happen in a missile loading accident at the wharf?" Milner asked in a letter to the P-I early this year.
A Hidden List of 'Potentially Serious Incidents'
Ground Zero recently won a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that showed 53 less severe "incidents" prior to 1986 involving submarine-launched missiles. Sixteen were classified as potentially serious.
Even if it's unlikely a nuclear warhead would be detonated, the potential remains for a plutonium release or an explosion from the Trident's missile propellant.
Adding Fitzpatrick's concerns to his own, Milner said, "What is most outrageous is that while on Nov. 7 when this ladder is impaled into this nose cone of this missile, imagine the sailors not knowing how far in, or whether it would blow up" creating an instant "dirty" bomb. "It's shocking that the Navy didn't reveal anything," he said.
So strict are the Navy's protocols for handling nuclear weapons that overlooking the smallest details results in discipline. The accident immediately shut down the strategic weapons facility. Fitzpatrick said the unit's failure to pass a subsequent inspection resulted in the firings.
Commander and Others Fired in 'Royal Flush'
As the P-I reported in December, Capt. Keith Lyles, commander of Bangor's strategic weapons unit was fired on the spot Dec. 19.
Also relieved of duty in what Fitzpatrick says has been coined the "royal flush" were Lyle's executive officer, Cmdr. Phillip Jackson, and Cmdr. Marshall Millett, weapons officer.
Young, the admiral in charge of strategic systems, cited only a "loss of confidence" as the reasons. Three enlisted men in the missile handling team face courts-martial involving less severe alleged offenses.
Those who could be reached declined to comment.
Young replaced Lyles with Capt. Lawrence Lehman. Lehman, who had led a 40-man inspection of the facility, replaced Lyles on the spot. The facility reopened after passing inspection Jan. 9.
There May Be 1,685 Nuclear Weapons Based in Washington State
Although defense officials are mum on nuclear weapons, the P-I in April 1998 reported on a Washington, DC-based Natural Resources Defense Council report that said base closures and realignments meant Washington state by 2003 could house 1,685 such weapons, more than any other state and bigger than the nuclear forces of Great Britain, France or China.
Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, has been a thorn in the Navy's side for years, trying to clear his name from a court-martial conviction that fellow officers and some congressmen say is a case of military justice gone wrong.
Fitzpatrick was executive officer of the USS Mars when he received a career-destroying reprimand in 1988 for failing to properly supervise the spending of his ship's morale, welfare and recreation money. The non-governmental funds pay for non-government gear such as entertainment or recreational equipment for the crew and are raised through the ship's retail store.
The incident grew out of a terror attack. Fitzpatrick allowed the money to be used to help Capt. Mike Nordeen, the ship's commanding officer, when his brother, Navy Capt. William Nordeen, was murdered in Greece by terrorists in 1988.
Though the ship's crew voted to use the money to send a contingent to the funeral, the Navy came down on Fitzpatrick for misusing the funds.
P-I reporter Paul Shukovsky contributed to this report. P-I reporter Mike Barber can be reached at 206-448-8018 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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