Spanish town still haunted by its brush with Armageddon

Thursday, September 11, 2008

PALOMARES, Spain: The rest of the world has mostly forgotten, but the brush with nuclear Armageddon is seared on the minds of locals here and still niggles, 42 years later.

On the morning of Jan. 17, 1966, a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber returning from a routine Cold War alert mission exploded during airborne refueling, sending its cargo of B28 hydrogen bombs plummeting toward earth. One went into the azure waters of the Mediterranean and three others fell around this poor farming village, about 200 kilometers, or 125 miles, east of Granada.

Seven crew members on the air force planes perished in the fireball, while four parachuted to safety. No one on the ground was killed. The nuclear warheads, many times more powerful than those that fell on Hiroshima, did not go off - exactly.

Parachutes failed to deploy on two of the bombs, resulting in high-explosive detonations that, although non-nuclear, spread radioactive material across a wide area of steep and rugged terrain.

A massive retrieval and cleanup operation ensued, with hundreds of U.S. military and Spanish civil guards swarming the area for months.

Tens of millions of dollars were spent. Eventually, the job done, they went home and attention drifted elsewhere.

The roughly 1,200 residents of Palomares would like to put the accident behind them as well. Livelihoods these days have moved beyond farming and depend more and more on attracting sun-starved northerners to vast stretches of beachfront apartments and manicured golf oases.

But the past has resurfaced literally with recent findings of unusually radioactive snails and the confiscation of fresh tracts of land for additional testing and cleanup. Not exactly a selling point for the melons and tomatoes still grown in large-scale, plastic-covered greenhouses nearby, much less a carefree life by the sea.

"This is damaging the village," said a retired farmer, 74-year-old Antonio, smoking outside the Palomares senior center/library/café one recent afternoon. "It's been going on for 40 years. We want this to be over forever." His friends used more unprintable language, their patience with the never-ending questions worn thin.

Much of the uncertainty today goes back to the secrecy imposed at the time, the height of the Cold War, by the repressive Franco regime and the U.S. military.

It started just after 10 a.m. on a clear winter's day.

"There was a big explosion," Antonio, who declined to give his last name, grudgingly recounted. "There was a big explosion. Things were flying all over. Everybody rushed outside." No one knew what had happened, but the first U.S. soldiers from joint bases in Spain arrived within hours. Only after the Soviets accused Washington of violating a nuclear test ban treaty did the United States concede, more than a month later, that the detonators on two of the bombs had gone off on impact.

The bomb that hit land more or less intact was quickly recovered. The one that landed in the Mediterranean took months to find. An estimated 1,400 tons of contaminated soil and vegetation was scooped up, and shipped to South Carolina for disposal.

Attempts were made to calm public fears. Most famously, the Spanish information and tourism minister, Manuel Fraga Iribarne, joined the U.S. ambassador, Angier Biddle Duke, on March 8 that year for a "swimming party" in the sea to demonstrate that the waters were safe. The photos were published around the world (including on the front page of The New York Times).

In Palomares today, there is no memorial or museum, just a short side street named "January 17, 1966," no explanation provided. At the library, a modest, plastic-bound folder contains photocopied press clippings in Spanish, French, German and English. Maybe once a month someone asks to see it, according to the librarian, but nothing has been added since 1985.

"They don't actually tell you about it before you get here," laughed Barbara Newman, 65, as she sipped a drink at La Dulce Casa, one of a handful of businesses in town catering to new arrivals, sun-seeking northern Europeans. She and her husband, Larry, 73, moved to Palomares last year from Stoke-on-Trent in northern England.

"You get a lot of jibes and jokes when people find out you live in Palomares," said Denise Angus, formerly of Wales, who opened the Pampered beauty salon four years ago. "Things like, 'You're going to glow in the dark."' Most new residents shrug off any health concerns, though, taking their lead from the locals and their reputed longevity.

In fact, decades of U.S.-financed health monitoring have found nothing out of the ordinary.

"The good thing is they find cases of diabetes or high cholesterol" that might have gone undetected, said Antonia Navarro, who owns the hardware store. At 37, she was born after the bombs fell, but has made three trips to Madrid for checkups with her grandmother.

The U.S. Department of Energy's cost-sharing arrangement with Spain, which began in 1966, was scheduled to end in 2008. But in October 2006, officials at the Spanish energy research agency Ciemat reported the discovery of the radioactive snails, necessitating more work.

A year ago, the United States agreed to pay $2 million for two more years of "technical assistance," according to the Spanish newspaper El País. In April, Ciemat identified two trenches containing about 1,000 cubic meters, or about 35,000 cubic feet, each of radioactive material that the U.S. Army left behind, Teresa Mendizabel, the Ciemat director, told the newspaper.

"They came and they cleaned and now 42 years later, they are cleaning again," scoffed Maria, 48, who owns the Bar Tomas on Constitution Square, and also declined to give her last name. "The national nuclear agency needs justification to keep working." New fences, marked with warning signs, have gone up around the land, near the town cemetery. Close by are the agricultural companies. Just beyond are the apartments for the sun-seekers, and the glittering sea.

"There are already holes in the fences and goats slip in to graze," Maria noted dismissively.

She was six when the bombs fell, and has fond memories of U.S. servicemen bringing cookies and candy. "We thought it was like chocolate that came from the sky." She believes the town should have some kind of memorial, for posterity's sake. But no more headlines. "We would like this to be over and to resume normal life," she said.

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