U.S. atomic bomb disaster narrowly averted in 1961; nuke almost exploded over N.C. by accident

(CBS News) At the height of the Cold War, Americans lived in fear of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. But a newly disclosed document reveals a time when the United States accidentally dropped bombs on its own soil.

Now, documents and a new book are shedding light on the close call.

It was just three days after John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, that the United States narrowly avoided a nuclear disaster. According to newly declassified documents, in January 1961, the Air Force almost detonated an atomic bomb over North Carolina by accident. The device was 260 times more powerful than the one that wiped out Hiroshima.

Author Eric Schlosser obtained the report while researching for his latest book "Command and Control." He said, "It literally would have changed the course of history. ... There was a B-52 bomber that started leaking fuel, thousands of gallons of fuel started coming out of it and it prepared to do an emergency landing. While it was preparing the emergency landing there was a weight imbalance and the plane started to break apart mid-air."

One of the two bombs on-board deployed its parachute as it fell into a field, immediately activating. Schlosser said, "What prevented the detonation was one switch, one safety switch and a fair amount of good luck, because that safety switch was later found in some cases to be defective."

Had the device exploded, the fallout could have stretched across the Eastern Seaboard, reaching Washington, D.C., and putting millions of lives at risk. Instead, the only remaining sign of any mishap is a plaque unveiled last year.

And this wasn't an isolated event. Schlosser says the near-miss is one of at least 700 significant incidents involving nuclear weapons recorded between 1950 and 1968. He believes America's arsenal is safer now, but insists close calls remain a threat. Schlosser said, "Our controls and our systems are superior to that of any other nation. But when you look at the long list of accidents and near misses that we've had despite our expertise, it gives you enormous pause about other countries like Pakistan, India, North Korea having nuclear weapons."