On September 18, 1980, around 6:30 p.m., an airman performing maintenance on a Titan II missile in Little Rock, Arkansas dropped a socket from a socket wrench. It fell eighty feet and hit the rocket’s first-stage fuel tank, which began to leak. By 9 p.m., the Air Force had evacuated personnel and an hour later, they began evacuating civilians. The missile contained a W-53 nuclear warhead.
In the early hours of September 19, Senior Airman David Livingston and Sergeant Jeff Kennedy took readings on airborne fuel concentrations within the launch complex. The levels were at their maximum. Around 3 a.m., they emerged for further orders and sat on the access portal. That was when the missile exploded.
The launch duct closure door, which weighed 740 tons, was blown 200 feet into the air and landed 600 feet from the complex. Kennedy landed 150 feet from the silo and broke his leg. Livingston lived long enough to be evacuated before succumbing to his injuries.
The nuclear warhead landed 100 feet from the complex’s main entrance. Thanks to safety features that can truly take a licking and not start ticking, no radioactive material was lost.
Congressional hearings on the incident deemed the Titan II program reliable overall. A missile maintenance structure was later named for the fallen Livingston.