Saturday 17 January 2015

Paco el de la bomba

Francisco Simó Orts was a humble prawn fisherman from Murcia is SE Spain. After 17th Jan 1966 he became known and renowned locally as Paco el de la bomba, and eventually secured a fortune in the process.  On the fateful January day, while Simó was put at sea fishing, the USAF were playing with matches (tsk!) in Operation Chrome Dome.
This was part of a cunning plan to ensure cold-war ascendancy by maintaining fully armed B-52 [L] bombers continuously in the air within striking distance of the USSR.  Except where depopulated Alaska comes perilous close to depopulated Siberia, the USA is a long way from the USSR and it was at the edge of technical engineering capability to fly the heavily laden bombers such a distance on the amount of fuel they could carry. The cunning plan accordingly required mid-air refuelling.  Air-travel is, in terms of passenger miles, the safest form of transport that we are likely to encounter.  But if you are in the air for an infinite amount of time there is certain to be an accident.  If the engineering is pushing the envelope then it's more likely that something will go wrong, somewhere in the system. There were 5 military nuclear mishaps in 1950 alone, only counting those involving the USAF and only those over North America or the adjacent ocean. We know nothing of the parallel cock-ups that were happening in the USSR and may speculate that Things Happened further away from US sovereignty which the New York Times didn't need to know about. And it was all hideously expensive: in today-money, it cost about $10,000/hr to keep these monster planes in the air. B-52s have the same wing-span as a 747.

On the day in question, the B-52 required two aerial refuellings and on the second of these the plane managed to rear-end the K-135 stratotanker which blew up and carried away the left wing of the B52.  Remarkably 4 members of the crew were able to parachute to safety; everyone on the tanker died in the conflagration. The four surviving crew floated to earth: three drifting out to sea. Four armed-and-ready nuclear bombs also came down: three just outside the village of Palomares in Eastern Andalusia where two exploded, while the 4th drifted out to sea on its parachute.  It took 45 minutes for the last ditched flyer to be picked up - by Francisco Simó. 

The explosions on the ground had not initiated a chain-reaction but had nevertheless blurfed radioactive plutonium over at least 260 hectares of tomato farms, woods and residences. The cleanup required 6,000 250lt barrels full of grossly contaminated topsoil but areas with lower levels of radioactivity were simply ploughed to shift the glowing bits initially out of sight.  It has to be said that, although you can still find snails that cause Geiger-counters to fizz, there is no evidence of cancer clusters amongst the human population. That should give pause to people who still want to blame fall-out from Windscale for a cluster of Down's Syndrome in County Louth.

The US authorities were happier engaging in the tech-happy problem of locating the 4th bomb than in the tedious business of bagging and shipping tonnes of contaminated soil. In Franco's Spain, it was largely a public relations exercise. But finding the lost bomb before the Russkies sent out their own subs was a matter of high priority. The USN deployed two dozen USN ships and thousands of crewmen to quarter the sea-bed looking for a very large hot cigar. They invited Simó the eye-witness to accompany their search vessels, paying him 8000 pesetas/d [~= $130] which was much more than he got from shrimping. Nevertheless it took two months of fruitless scuba diving before they brought Bayesian statistics into the equation and realised that Simó's testimony pointed to a different, deeper, area of the sea-bed. On St Patrick's Day 1966, the DSV Alvin [L] located the errant bomb 800m below the surface and started lifting it.  Someone dropped the ball >!oops!< however, and the prize plummeted to the bottom again. It wasn't until 7th April that the bomb was secured safely aboard USN Petrel.

Sr. Simó was given a medal at the American Embassy in Madrid but felt hard done by and eventually secured the services of an American lawyer and former Attroney General called Herbert Brownell . . . or Brownell hunted down the contract from Simó in search of his cut.  The law of the sea says that, if a witness provides information that leads to the salvage of sunken ships, then s/he is entitled to a percentage of the proceeds; usually a token 1-2%.  As the bomb was bloat-valued at $2billion, Simó and Brownell made a case for a token $20 million.  The USAF settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

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