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AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Command And Control

Airs Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017 at 9 p.m. & Sunday, Jan. 15 at 1 p.m. on KPBS TV

A missile.

Credit: Courtesy of WGBH

Above: A missile. "Command And Control" reveals the long-hidden story of a deadly 1980 accident at a Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Ark. Portions of the film were shot in an abandoned Titan II missile silo in Ariz.

High-Stakes Documentary Thriller Exposes Long-Hidden Story of One of America’s Most Dangerous Nuclear Accidents

A cautionary tale of freak accidents, near misses, human fallibility, and extraordinary heroism, “Command And Control” exposes the terrifying truth about the management of America’s nuclear arsenal and shows what can happen when the weapons built to protect us threaten to destroy us. The film recounts, in chilling, minute-by-minute detail, the story of a deadly 1980 accident at a Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas.

Through the first-person accounts of Air Force personnel, weapon designers and first responders who were on the scene, the film reveals the unlikely chain of events that caused the accident and the feverish efforts to prevent the explosion of a ballistic missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built by the United States — 600 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

Directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Robert Kenner (“Food Inc.”) and based on the critically acclaimed book of the same title by Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”), “Command And Control” premieres on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017 on PBS.

Photo credit: Courtesy of USAF

The crew in the control room in Damascus, Ark., including Allan Childers (second from end on right), who was deputy commander of the Titan II missile crew.

On the evening of Sept. 18, 1980, Airmen David F. Powell and Jeffrey L. Plumb were performing routine maintenance at the Titan II silo in Damascus, Arkansas. At the age of 21, Powell was considered a highly experienced missile technician; Plumb, who had just turned 19, was still in training. As the two stood on a platform near the top of the Titan II, a socket fell from Powell’s wrench, plummeted 70 feet and, shockingly, punctured the missile. A stream of highly explosive rocket fuel began pouring into the silo.

Nothing like this had ever happened to a Titan II before and the Air Force had no procedures in place to deal with the event. For the next eight hours, the leadership of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) frantically struggled to figure out how to prevent a massive explosion and retain control of the thermonuclear warhead — a weapon so powerful that it could destroy much of Arkansas and deposit lethal radioactive fallout across the East Coast.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Dave Powell

Dave Powell, senior airman, was a 21-year-old Titan II repairman on Propellant Transfer System Team A in Damascus. 1979.

“The story of the Damascus accident is one that nobody really knows, and in fact, I’m not sure anybody’s supposed to know,” said Mark Samels, producer of "Command And Control" and AMERICAN EXPERIENCE executive producer. “As safe and secure and as well-designed and well-operated as our nuclear weapons system may be, it’s subject to the x-factor. And the x-factor is human fallibility. The most powerful weapons that we’ve ever created as human beings have a threat built into them. And that threat is us.”

“Today the U.S. still has approximately 7,000 nuclear weapons. 'Command And Control' teaches us that these weapons not only pose a threat to our enemies, but also to ourselves,” said Kenner. “After an accident, everyone will be asking why we didn’t do something. We need to be asking these questions before it’s too late.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of Annette Devlin

Greg Devlin in the hospital following the Damascus incident.

Woven through the Damascus story is a riveting history of America’s nuclear weapons program, from World War II through the Cold War, much of it based on recently declassified documents. A cautionary tale filmed in an abandoned Titan II missile silo in Arizona, "Command And Control" forces viewers to confront the great dilemma that the U.S. has faced since the dawn of the nuclear age: How do we manage weapons of mass destruction without being destroyed by them?

FILM REVIEW:

“Robert Kenner’s documentary, based on Eric Schlosser's terrifying book of the same name, combines Cold War-era thriller with post-apocalyptic nightmare. And given it’s all true, this one will stay with you for days after viewing.”Rolling Stone

WATCH ON YOUR SCHEDULE:

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A DVD of the film can be purchased at ShopPBS.org.

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Command And Control: Trailer

A chilling nightmare plays out at a Titan II missile complex in Arkansas in September, 1980. A worker accidentally drops a socket, puncturing the fuel tank of an intercontinental ballistic missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead in our arsenal, an incident which ignites a series of feverish efforts to avoid a deadly disaster.

Command And Control, Chapter 1

A chilling nightmare plays out at a Titan II missile complex in Arkansas in September, 1980.

Deterrence and the Turn of a Key

“The whole reason I sat out there was to prevent anything from happening. That's what deterrence was about. But deterrence is worthless if you don't demonstrate that you are willing to do it.” Lieutenant Allan Childers was a deputy commander of the Titan II Missile Combat Crew. He was on duty the night of the accident in Damascus, Ark.

Accident Report

Bob Purifoy joined Sandia National Laboratories as an engineer in 1952, and later became its leading advocate for nuclear weapon safety. Bill Stevens was an engineer who served as the first head of Sandia’s nuclear safety department. Both men were shocked when they realized how vulnerable the nation’s nuclear weapons were to accidents.

Goldsboro 1961

On January 24, 1961, when a B-52 bomber carrying two powerful hydrogen bombs took off on a routine mission over Goldsboro, North Carolina. During the mission, the plane experienced a fuel leak, and suddenly the B-52 began to break apart mid-air.

CREDITS:

A Robert Kenner Films production for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. Directed by Robert Kenner. Screenplay by Robert Kenner and Eric Schlosser. Story by Brian Pearle and Kim Roberts. Based on the book “Command and Control” by Eric Schlosser. Produced by Robert Kenner, Melissa Robledo, Mark Samels, and Eric Schlosser. Edited by Kim Roberts, A.C.E. Directors of Photography: Paul Goldsmith and Jay Redmond. Music by Mark Adler. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is a production of WGBH Boston. Senior Producer is Susan Bellows. Executive Producer is Mark Samels.

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