Here is another recollection from Peter J. Dawson about growing up in Frankford:
As Americans fret endlessly about whether spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste can be moved from nuclear power plants through their towns, they never stop to consider how the radioactive materials, including nuclear weapons, get to their sites.
In 1960, when I was 7 years of age, our family lived on Wakeling Street in the Northwood section of Frankford, near Rutland Street. I was just then becoming dimly aware of the Cold War, of the “us versus them” ideology pervading the thinking of the era, and of the existence of nuclear weapons atop missiles aimed at each side by the other.
One night in the Summer of 1960, sometime after midnight, I was sound asleep in our bedroom, when a loud rumbling outside the windows awakened me. Our family had no air conditioning in those days. So, as I sleepily climbed out of bed, I thought, “Wow! What a hot night! I can’t close the windows. It’s going to be hard getting back to sleep with that noise outside. What is making that noise?”
I looked out the window facing the back yard and Allengrove Street, saw nothing, and walked into the bedroom where my parents were sound asleep.
Looking out the window toward the intersection of Wakeling and Rutland, I saw an astonishing site: There, illuminated by the street light on the corner, was a huge flatbed truck, motor rumbling in idle, bearing a giant white rocket. The nose cone of the rocket on the flatbed was pointed forwards, toward the front of the truck. The rear two thirds of the rocket was covered with a light-colored tarp. From the shape of the tarp it was clear that the rocket had wings and a tail. I could actually see the front one-third of the rocket, from just in front of the wings to the nose cone which I found out years later normally bore a 10 kiloton nuclear weapon.
As I stood there looking out the window, transfixed by the sight, I saw what were probably Air Force ordnance supply personnel standing outside the truck, looking at a map with a flashlight, arguing. I thought, in my 7-year-old-kid way, “THE GOVERNMENT SECRETLY MOVES ROCKETS AROUND THE STREETS AT NIGHT!”
I told my family about it the next day. I think that they thought that I had been dreaming.
The memory of the huge missile on the flatbed truck at Wakeling and Rutland Streets stayed with me. 41 years later, in November or December, 2001, I was an attorney in Camden County, New Jersey, court room. A man unrelated to the case being tried in the courtroom sat in the back, staring at me. When court was finished, and I packed-up my brief case and put on my hat and began to walk out, the man jumped out of his seat and walked over to me. “You look like a pretty good attorney. Will you sit down with me while I tell you an amazing story?”
And, to my most intense astonishment, he began to tell me the complex story behind “the lost nuclear missile of Frankford,” 41 years before.
As the Cold War intensified in the 1950s, the federal government, afraid of nuclear-bomb-toting long range Soviet bombers, began to protect large cities on the East Coast with BOMARC Missile sites. Philadelphia was protected by a BOMARC Missile base on land in Fort Dix, New Jersey, leased to the Air Force on Plumsted Township, on Route 539 just north of Route 70, on the northern bank of a creek in the top of the Toms River watershed called Elisha Branch.
The BOMARC Missile was an anti-aircraft missile, a little under 50 feet in length, designed to carry a 10 kiloton nuclear device to an altitude of 60,000 feet and incinerate dozens of enemy bombers at once with one big blast.
The BOMARC Missile’s engines were very advanced for the time — functionally, the same technology powering the almost mythological Aurora spy plane of our day. A conventional rocket motor lifted the BOMARC off the ground and accelerated the rocket to a very high speed. When the vehicle was going fast enough to deliver sufficient oxygen to them, two ramjet jet engines took over and propelled the BOMARC Missile to its target at well over 2,000 mph.
Inside each BOMARC engine was a tank of highly compressed helium gas, for driving liquid propellant into the engines.
On June 7, 1960, at about 3:15 p.m., inside Missile Shelter #204 in the Fort Dix BOMARC complex, a hidden weakness in the wall of the helium tank in the BOMARC Missile there gave way to the enormous pressures within — probably about 3,000 pounds per square inch. The explosion in the rear of the rocket started a fire, which spread to the nuclear weapon in the nose cone.
Nuclear weapons aren’t like gunpowder. You don’t set them off with a string-like fuse you light with a match. They don’t generate a nuclear explosion in the presence of fire. Achieving a nuclear blast is a very hard thing to do. But, nuclear weapons in those days were jammed with extraordinarily volatile components — very flammable high explosives for ramming fissionables together, and, frequently, very flammable hydrogen isotopes to enhance the bang when the nuclear weapon goes off, encased in a very flammable Styrofoam carriage next to the bomb core.
So, the Fort Dix BOMARC fire was a mess. The explosion and fire blew the roof off the shelter. While dozens of volunteer firefighters from surrounding towns struggled to douse the extremely hot rocket engine and nose cone fire, liquefied radioactive materials dripped to the ground, while heat and explosions shot other materials hither and yon around the site. Water sprayed by firemen onto the fire spread radioactive materials even farther. Volunteer firefighters became anxious when federal hazmat crews showed up in green suits with oxygen packs. They thought, “Is it safe to breath the air near this fire?”
Some time after the fire, a replacement BOMARC Missile was shipped-in from another location. That’s probably what I saw that night from the upstairs bedroom of our house — an Air Force ordnance crew hauling the brand new BOMARC Missile, looking for the best route to one of the bridges crossing-over to New Jersey. Unfamiliar with the area, and desperate to get to one of the Delaware bridges before sunrise, drove off the north-bound lanes of Roosevelt Boulevard, probably at Foulkrod Street, and became worried as Foulkrod narrowed at Rutland. Desperate for a way out of all of those neighborhoods, they drove noisily up Rutland Street to Wakeling Street and stopped to argue over where they were on the map, while a little boy, awakened by the noise, secretly looked down on them from the bedroom above.
The man who approached me in court that day in 2001, 41 years later, told me that in the ensuing months, many of the firefighters died, probably from radiation poisoning, and the government quietly paid damages to their families.
He said that the government decided to seal the plutonium which had melted and dripped from the warhead into the ground by covering the area with a large concrete pad — not a bad idea, really, since plutonium, though not normally water soluble, could have been driven from the site by rain water run-off, and the pad would keep flowing water from washing the plutonium deeper into the ground. Also, plants love heavy metals. The pad would keep plant roots from taking plutonium into the above-ground portions of the plants, making it available for birds and other animals to eat, spreading it further, and perhaps[s causing plutonium to enter the food chain..
But, along came acid rain, generated by industrial smokestacks to the west and north, and carried eastward by prevailing winds. Acid rain causes plutonium to form the only known water-soluble plutonium salt. As more and more acid rain fell on the Pine Barrens around Fort Dix, the plutonium began to dissolve into the groundwater — and flow into a local creek called Elisha Branch at the top of the Toms River watershed, and then into the estuary called Toms River, next to the town of the same name.
In the 1990s, health authorities noticed an odd increase in the incidence of cancer among children in the Toms River area, called the Toms River Cluster.
Among other things, scientists working for the government wondered if the BOMARC site was leaching plutonium into the water, and discovered that acid rain was enabling exactly that.
My client, who was connected with the effort to investigate the acid rain problem, told me that the Toms River Cluster families were involved in a giant lawsuit against Ciba-Geigy, Union Carbide and Toms River Water Company, that in his opinion they were suing the wrong party, and that the government should be a Defendant in that lawsuit. He asked me to tell Cluster victim lawyers about the BOMARC plutonium.
I responded that though plutonium was very dangerous, and it had an extremely long half-life — in down-to-earth terms, it sits around being radioactive for about 24,000 years — just finding that it was dissolving in acid rain in Plumsted Township was probably not a strong enough of a connection to the cancer cluster a few miles away to generate government liability. But, I promised to call the lawyers.
I did. They responded that they were about to settle the case with Ciba-Geigy, Union Carbide and Toms River Water Company, and so they didn’t want to hear about the government as another Defendant in the case. It would just give the other Defendants someone else to blame.
So, nothing came of it. But suddenly, after 41 years, I knew why I saw a 10 kiloton nuclear missile on a flatbed lost in Frankford that night.
PETER J. DAWSON