Missiles armed with warheads
Oct. 11, 2001
Robert Slavin
Staff Writer

Tom Fedor/The Gazette

All interstate motorists were diverted onto Route 40 at Route 17 near Myersville on Friday, clogging secondary roads during the 19 hours the highway was closed.

Despite reports that missiles on a flatbed truck that drove over an embankment near Myersville on Friday were unarmed, the missiles had warheads, a member of the ordnance disposal team said Tuesday.

Because safety devices were in place, the military considered the eight missiles unarmed, said 1st Sgt. Matthew Woods of U.S. Army's Explosive Ordnance Disposal at Andrews Air Force Base, the ranking officer among five people from his unit at the scene Friday. The warheads held conventional, not nuclear, explosives, Woods said.

Multiple devices within each missile -- known as Standoff Land Attack Missiles -- Extended Response (SLAM-ER) -- were in place to prevent a launch or explosion, Woods said.

Because of the warheads, Woods' unit called for the evacuation of the area around Interstate 70, near Route 17. A one-mile radius around the accident was blocked off from traffic for 19 hours, homes were evacuated, and air space around the accident was closed off.

The 8:42 a.m. accident occurred when a civilian carrier of U.S. Navy missiles hit his truck against a side wall along Interstate 70 just east of Myersville. The driver, Danny L. Harkey, lost control of the truck and the truck overturned down the right roadside embankment.

The truck leaked some diesel fuel. However, when Woods arrived at the scene the engine was off and the fire companies had taken measures to prevent the fuel's ignition.

Harkey has been charged with negligent driving, which could lead to a fine of anywhere from $270 to $1,000.

Each SLAM-ER was in a case designed for safe transportation, said John Randt, spokesman for Military Traffic Command of the U.S. Army.

The missile cases "took a huge beating and there wasn't a scratch on them," Woods said. "I was really surprised at the strength of the containers."

SLAM-ERs are airplane-launched cruise missiles. They are 14 feet 4 inches in length and weigh 1,400 pounds each.

"We look at the worst-case scenario," in making recommendations for evacuation, Woods explained.

A Maryland State Police spokesman refused to comment Wednesday on what police knew about the missile's payload. "We were told all information has to come from military authorities. We were not going to discuss what the load was, that's through military protocol," said Bud Frank, spokesman for the Maryland State Police.

In the midst of Friday's confusion, however, different versions were being told. MSP spokesman Thornnie Rouse said the missiles were "unarmed." A firefighter at the scene said crews were dealing with explosives.

The missiles' fuel, JP10, was flammable but not explosive, said Cathy Partusche, public affairs officer for the Program Executive Office for Strike Weapons and Unmanned Aviation, U.S. Navy. Partusche said Monday that the only volatile substance was the missiles' fuel.

Capt. Daryl Love of the Myersville Volunteer Fire Co. was in charge of safety measures at the scene. She ordered the mile-wide evacuation zone on the advice of Woods' unit.

"Your local fire departments and all the other local officials handled [the situation] very well," Woods said.

Even though the missiles were not nuclear, it is not unusual for nuclear bombs and warheads to be transported along interstates.

Such devices are transported on interstate highways "all the time," said Stephen Schwartz, publisher of Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. However, there are elaborate technologies connected with each device that would prevent their explosion in case of an accident, Schwartz said. Accidents could cause radiation leaks, though, he said. They are carried on escorted government vehicles, usually at night.