Arkansas PBS > Engage > Pressroom > 'American Experience: Command and Control' detailing Damascus, Arkansas, nuclear accident to premiere on AETN in early 2017

'American Experience: Command and Control' detailing Damascus, Arkansas, nuclear accident to premiere on AETN in early 2017

Posted 25 Aug 2016

A cautionary tale of freak accidents, near misses, human fallibility and extraordinary heroism, 'American Experience: 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. The film will premiere on the Arkansas PBS in early 2017 after a brief run in theaters this fall.

'The events of 1980 in Damascus, Arkansas, strike close to home, especially because AETN headquarters is less than 30 miles away from the site of the disaster,' said AETN Executive Director Allen Weatherly. 'We believe 'Command and Control' will help all Arkansans to understand the events that led to the explosion and to recognize the heroic work required to deal with the nightmarish situation.

'I had the opportunity to read the book the film is based upon and found the history riveting. We expect the same reaction to this superb film.'

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. 'Command and Control' is 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').

The story of the Damascus accident is one that nobody really knows and, in fact, I'm not sure anybody's supposed to know,' Mark Samels, producer of 'Command and Control' and 'American Experience' executive producer, said. '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.'

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.

'Today the U.S. still has approximately 7,000 nuclear weapons,' Kenner said. ''Command and Control' teaches us that these weapons not only pose a threat to our enemies, but also to ourselves.

'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.'

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?

According to Rolling Stone, '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.'

AETN previously interviewed Schlosser for an episode of 'Barnes and … A Conversation With.' The interview may be seen in its entirety at