Photo courtesy Marcella Pry
Gary Lay was one of only two men who made it out alive.
Silo fire survivor tells his story
From 1962 to 1987, Arkansas hosted 18 Titan II missile sites, six in White County. The missiles stood 110 feet tall and each could travel some 6,000 miles at a speed of 18,000 mph. Each Titan contained 9-megaton nuclear warheads, the largest in the U.S. military. All were on alert 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They were dismantled in the mid-1980s, all except Site 571-7 in Green Valley, AZ, just south of Tucson which is now a museum.
"It sounded like whoosh, kind of like when a gas stove lights," said Gary Lay of Little Rock, describing the last couple of minutes prior to 53 men being killed in a Titan II missile silo fire that occurred 35 years ago, seven miles north of Searcy on Highway 16.
Lay, who was one of the only two survivors of the accident, said he hasnít told his story in 33 years to anyone except friends. It may be different from many other accounts, he told an audience of about 100 attending a recent meeting of the White County Historical Society.
"Every fatality was from smoke inhalation. One thing I would like to tell family members and friends is that it was instantaneous. Every bit of oxygen was just sucked out of there," Lay said. Yet, he told of hearing the cries of the men as they attempted to escape.
At age 17, Lay was working there to earn money for college. After the fire, he was hospitalized for 21 days with third degree burns on his hands and second degree burns on his face. He was transported by ambulance to a hospital in Searcy.
Hubert A. Saunders of Conway was also taken to the hospital. Saunders was painting a door on the topmost level inside the "gun barrel," a concrete and steel-plated tub that sheathes the missile. The two were the only survivors.
"It (the ambulance ride) was the longest ride of my life because of the pain," Lay recalled.
He fully recovered and now owns and manages an advertising agency, GWL Advertising Inc. of Little Rock. At the time of the accident, Lay said, he was working on level two when the fire flashed only a few feet from him. He recalled first attempting to go down a ladder. He said he made his way down about eight or 10 feet prior to crawling back up.
"The smoke was absolutely horrible," he said. He made his way through the pitch black, smoke-filled darkness to escape through the "cableway."
The severe burns on his body, he said, were from the flash fire and also from his falling into some hot metal. When he came out of the cableway, he collapsed, he said. He recalled being placed in a contamination area and showered prior to being transported by ambulance.
"There have been several accounts of what happened," he said. "I have heard and read accounts that said the fire was caused when a flame from a welderís torch touched a nearby hose and ignited hydraulic fluid. There was no one welding down there. There was no explosion."
After a year of court proceedings, he said, it was finally determined the apparent cause of the accident was from a ruptured hydraulic line spraying diesel fluid on a wire Ė igniting it.
Lay had only been working in the silo for two days when the accident occurred. He recalled a sign at the site reading "206 days without an accident." He said he was anxious to go back to work there because he had spent most of the summer operating a jackhammer at another construction site at a hospital in Clinton.
He was also friends with many of the small army of workers at the site because he had worked with them the past summer. His father was a business agent for the local union in Little Rock and had 13 workers at that particular site that day who were killed.
"One thing, working behind that jackhammer, I was in the best physical condition of my life," he offered. He weighed about 212 pounds. He was preparing to enter college the next month, and he had aspirations to play ball at the University of Arkansas.
When the accident occurred, Lay had just re-entered the silo with a group of men who had been outside on a lunch break. He recalled his last conversations with some of the men including a friend, Jack Milam, who was a sheet metal worker. They had known each other for about three years.
"We did a lot of talking on that break," he said. "I was with five other guys. When we got to the end of the cableway, Jack got on the elevator."
The other men were making their way around to their work areas when the accident happened at about 1:07.
The silo had been completed in the early Ď60s, not many years before the accident occurred in August, 1965.
Contrary to some reports, Lay said, the missile was unarmed, and the warhead was located in Jacksonville. The missile was assigned to the 308th Strategic Missile Wing, based at Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville.
At the time of the accident, the project was in the remodification stage, Lay said. Arkansas was a "hot bed" for construction, he said, and it was inundated with carpenters, painters, millwrights, electricians and pipefitters.
Those working at the site were civilian employees of Peter Kiewit and Son Company and also Newbery Electric Corporation, both out-of-state companies.
He described the silo as a "big underground city with two ways in and two ways out." They were covered by a 490-ton steel and concrete door with walls that ranged from four to eight feet thick.
The complex was built with three chambers, the launch tube which had nine levels, an access unit, and a control center. Lay also talked about the security procedures at the operation. However, he said security was "lax" compared to the year prior when persons were not permitted to enter without a security escort.
"There were security escorts playing gin that day," he said.
Lay was involved with the trial proceedings that went on for a year which resulted in families receiving a small amount of compensation for their loved onesí lives, Lay said.
He said one of the hardest things he had to do after the accident was face families and attempt to answer questions.
"Why did all those men get killed and I didnít?" he questioned. "I donít know."