ACTS OF FATE!
In the 1930s, vast tracts of
A CHOKING CLOUD OF DUST -
a decade of dust stormed
In the 1930s, vast tracks of the great plains - the 'bread-basket' of the USA - turned into desert. decades of intensive farming had removed the prairie grass and a series of extremely dry years turned the once fertile soil into dust. Then, during successive violent storms, the dust simply blew away.
On April 14, 1935, a family from Boise City, Idaho, had planned atria to the country. Then on the horizon a black cloud appeared, rilling swiftly across the flat landscape, engulfing everything in its path like a gigantic steamroller. The family quickly packed their things into the car and started for home.
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They were already too late; the storm caught up with the car, reducing visibility to a few feet and turning day into night. The fine dust filled their ears and eyes and clogged their mouths and noses, making it difficult to breathe. Fortunately they stumbled
'We live with the dust, eat it, sleep with it, watch it strip us of possessions and the hope of possessions.'
AMERICAN JOURNALIST, AVIS CARLSON
on a ruined house and went in to take refuge - joining ten other people who had also been caught unawares. It was four hours before the storm died down and they could make their way home. The next day a reporter coined the term 'dust bowl' to describe the driest region of the Plains - south-eastern Colorado, south-west Kansas and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas. Here, throughout the 1930s, the so-called 'black blizzards' raged each spring, blowing up roughly every other day during March, April and May. In Oklahoma, 102 such storms were recorded in a single year. In June 1935, Reader's Digest magazine published a letter from a woman in Oklahoma. 'In the dust-covered desolation of our No Man's Land here, we have been trying to rescue our home from the wind-blown dust which penetrates wherever air can go. It is almost a hopeless task, for there is rarely a day when at some time the dust clouds do not roll over. Visibility approaches zero and everything is covered again with a silt-like deposit which may vary in depth from a film to actual ripples on the kitchen floor.' That year, dust storms were responsible for the failure of 46.6 million acres of crops on the Great Plains.
THE WIDER IMPACT
In May 1934, a four-day storm laid waste to more than 50,000 square miles of fertile farmland in the Great Plains - but its effects were noticed much further afield. The winds whipped up a cloud that covered an area around 15 times the size of Britain, and gathered enough momentum to send 350 million tonnes of airborne soil at speeds up to 100 miles an hour towards the East Coast. The cloud towered almost three miles high; migrating birds that flew into it suffocated in mid air and dropped out of the sky. In Washington DC black dust rained on the White House. The wind currents dumped an estimated 12 million tonnes of dust on Chicago. The next day, New York City was engulfed for several hours. The dust even fell on ships lying more than 300 miles offshore.
In the early 1930s, farmers had ridden out the storms with a degree of stoicism and even a morbid humour. But as their wheat fields were destroyed on a regular basis, fodder for livestock dwindled and hundreds of thousands of starving animals had to be slaughtered, the farmers' sense of humour deserted them. Incomes slumped, but the banks still insisted on interest payments being made on farm loans. Many families faced ruin and were forced to abandon their farms.
A column of refuges from the dust bowl made their way to California, driven out by dust storms that could sandblast the paint from weather-boarded houses. People caught outside when the storms rolled over vomited clods of soil - and ministers preached that the storms signified the end of the world.
A huge migration began. Nearly 40 per cent of the people living in the rural area around Boise City in Idaho left for an uncertain future. By 1940, two-and-a-half million people from the Great
'The people came out of their houses and smelted the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it.
JOHN STEINBECK IN THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1939)
Plains had upped sticks, 200,000 of them moving west to California. But the whole nation was in the grip of an economic depression following the 1929 Wall Street Crash, and the last thing the people in California wanted was an influx of desperate 'Okies' and 'Arkies' - disparaging terms used to describe the Oklahoma and Arkansas refugees. The only work to be had was in the cotton fields and fruit groves, where the migrants laboured for starvation wages, and had to find extortionate rents for dreadful lodgings.
The disaster not only inspired John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie. It also resulted in an unusual film. Sponsored by the US government, The Plow that Broke the Plains was a short documentary made in 1936 by Pare Lorentz. This early propaganda film, whose soundtrack incorporated many folk tunes, aimed to drive home the message that the misuse of land had serious repercussions.
WILL IT HAPPEN AGAIN?
Periods of drought were nothing new in the Great Plains - they were as much a part of the climate as tornadoes and blizzards. From 1880 to 1885 and again from 1906 to 1912, the region had
Large scale agribusiness is still used to grow grain in the USA. Immense farms, high-level mechanisation and an intensive use of pesticides predominate.
The Great Plains states
The Great Plains are an arid region in the US Midwest. They cover about half a million square miles in ten states - New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota. Ever since the area was first farmed it has been regarded as the 'breadbasket' of the United States.
Thousands of miles of 'nothing' Today, barely one million people inhabit the region, making the Great Plains one of the most sparsely populated agricultural areas on the planet. Its farming population is now only eighth the size it was in 1930.
Reasons for depopulation The population decline has occurred in response to droughts, to the mechanisation of agriculture, and to the fact that previously cultivated land has been allowed to revert to prairie grasslands.
suffered long dry periods. But once the rain and snow returned, the farmers would trundle out with their tractors and ploughs to turn the fertile prairie grasslands into fields of wheat.
Grain prices were high during the First World War and with new heavy agricultural machinery making farming easier, the farmers grew rich. In Kansas alone in 1919, more than 12 million acres of land were being used to grow wheat - almost double the area of a decade earlier. Ten years later, the climate pendulum swung once more and the farmland that had provided such high yields was gradually transformed by water shortages and storms into desolate badlands.
PREVENTING THE DUST BOWL
It took a long time for the US government to grasp the seriousness of the situation and put relief programmes in place. The Roosevelt administration provided as much aid as it could, and also targeted the causes of the dust bowl. Rows of trees were planted to act as windbreaks and protect the soil from drying out completely. Soil conservation became a big issue, and farmers were taught the benefits of terracing and contouring. The dust bowl years finally ended in 1941 with the arrival of drenching rains on the southern and central plains.
There have been a number of droughts and dust storms since 1941, in the early 1950s, the 1970s and the 1990s. In dry years towns in the core of the region are still badly affected by dust storms. Careful land management has meant that the effects of these storms are far less dramatic than they were during the 1930s, but environmentalists and critics of modern agricultural systems warn that unless modern farming is drastically reformed, the dust bowl may return.
When the Andrea Doria, an Italian luxury liner collided with a Swedish ship in dense fog off the eastern seaboard of the USA, prospects looked bleak for her 1706 passengers and crew, even though the disaster was played out in front of the world's media.
With a terrible rending of metal, the bow of the Stockholm buried itself in the side of the Andrea Doria, tearing a massive gash in her flank, her steel plating crushed like an eggshell. On board, internal walls collapsed, burying bunks as they fell. Tastefully furnished cabins were transformed into a deadly maze of twisted metal, splinters of glass and shattered furniture. On the lower decks, a thousand tonnes of water gushed in. Eleven hours later, the Andrea Doria finally slipped beneath the waves.
THE LUXURY LINER
The pride of the Italian Line left Genoa on July 17, 1956. The Andrea Doria called at Cannes, Naples, and Gibraltar before setting course for New York, a crossing she had made 50 times. A total of 1706 passengers were on board, enjoying the ship's three outdoor swimming pools or drinking cocktails at the bar. In the evenings there was live music and dancing. Safety was at a premium: no expense had been spared in fitting the floating hotel with the latest equipment, including a brand new radar system.
FOG AND DANCING
The nine-day voyage passed without incident. The weather was fine and the sea calm. Only on the afternoon of the last day, July 25 did a bank of fog appear off the American coast. But the ship's new radar system was capable of pinpointing every hazard, even in the worst visibility. Captain Piero Calamai set up the usual safety procedures; the foghorn sent out a warning blast at regular intervals and a lookout was posted at the ship's bow to keep a watch for approaching danger. But the captain only reduced the ocean liner's speed marginally.
On the final day of the crossing, passengers were getting ready to bid farewell to life on board. Some retired early, while others were determined to savour every last minute in the ship's bars and ballrooms. Meanwhile, routine operations were continuing on the bridge. At 10.20 pm the Andrea Doria passed the Nantucket lightship, a marker point for all ships on their way to dock in New York harbour.
Named after the 16th-century Genoese admiral, the Andrea Doria was the largest, fastest and supposedly safest of Italy's ocean-going liners. With a double hull, Andrea Doria was divided into 11 watertight compartments: any two of these could be filled with water without endangering the ship's safety. She also carried enough lifeboats to accommodate all 1706 passengers and crew.
Modern shipping disasters
After colliding with an iceberg on the night of April 14-15, 1912, the supposedly 'unsinkable' transatlantic liner Titanic sank on her maiden voyage, with the loss of more than 1500 lives.
The Wilhelm Gustloff
The German liner Wilhelm Gustloff, torpedoed in the Baltic on January 30, 1945, went down with the loss of at least 5348 - and perhaps as many as 9000 - people most of them refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.
On August 12, 2000, the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk was lost on manoeuvres in the Barents Sea with 118 crewmen on board. The explosion of one of the submarine's own torpedoes was almost certainly to blame.
The calm on the bridge was rudely interrupted by a telephone call. The lookout on the bow reported that he had heard the foghorn of another ship off the starboard side. Another 25 minutes elapsed before the small Swedish passenger ship Stockholm appeared for the first time on the Andrea Doria's radar screen, confirming the lookout's sighting. 'Single vessel...distance 17 miles', the second officer called out.
A FATEFUL DECISION
The Stockholm, at 160 metres and 12,165 tonnes, was one of the smallest of the new postwar liners. She had left New York harbour that morning and set a course slightly to the north of the usual route taken by ships out of New York -probably to cut a few miles off her journey. The route would bring her into proximity with incoming ships in one of the busiest sea lanes in the world. On the bridge of the Stockholm the ship's third officer, 26-year-old Johan-Ernst Bogislaus Carstens-Johannsen, manned the 8.30 pm to 12.00 am watch, the only officer present. On the bridge of the Andrea Doria, Second Officer Curzio Franchini kept a close watch on the radar screen for the approaching ship. There seemed to be no cause for alarm.
There are clear rules of navigation governing evasive action. If two ships are approaching one another on the high seas, they are required to pass each other on the port side. But the radar showed the captain of the Andrea Doria that the other ship was sailing to the right of his vessel. To pass it on the port side, the Andrea Doria would have to cut across the path of the Stockholm - a risky manoeuvre. The liner would also have to sail close to the busy Nantucket coast. So at 11.05 pm Captain Calamai made the decision to make a slight alteration in his course that would ensure that the ships passed at a safe distance from one another on their starboard sides. Meanwhile the Stockholm's radar operator had picked up the Andrea Doria. The ships had been approaching one another for many miles now but still had no visual contact.
THE DOOMED MANOEUVRE
On board the Andrea Doria, Third Officer Eugenio Giannini scanned the white wall of fog with a pair of binoculars. At first he could only make out a dim glow in the distance, then, gradually, the masts and navigational lights of the other ship emerged from the gloom. At this point, barely one nautical mile separated the two ships. As he gazed at the lights of the Stockholm, Giannini suddenly saw that the other vessel was changing course and heading directly for the Andrea Doria. On board the Stockholm, Carstens thought he was giving the oncoming ship a wide berth, but in fact he was turning his ship towards the Andrea Doria. Captain Calamai ordered his ship to
The Andrea Doria's severe list complicated normal lifeboat procedures. Empty boats had to be placed in the water first, and evacuees lowered down the ship's hull to sea level to board. This was finally accomplished using ropes, Jacob's ladders and a large fishing net. Some passengers panicked and threw children to rescuers below or jumped overboard themselves.
turn hard to port, in the desperate hope that her superior speed and manoeuvrability would avert the impending disaster. His emergency manoeuvre made the situation worse. Instead of steering straight at the Stockholm with her bow, the Andrea Doria now presented a vulnerable flank to the rapidly approaching ship. On board the Stockholm, Carstens ordered the ship's engines to be set to full reverse. But it was too late. A collision was inevitable.
At 11.10 pm, the ships collided. The Stockholm's sharply raked prow pierced Andrea Doria's starboard side, penetrating three cabin decks to a depth of nearly 12 metres. The impact hurled people from their bunks: some were killed outright. The band playing to late night dancers in the ballroom toppled from their bandstand and the movie screen went dead. Panic ensued.
The interior of the Andrea Doria was divided into eleven compartments sealed off from one another by watertight bulkheads. If the ship was holed anywhere, the water would only flood one of these compartments. But the Stockholm had ripped open seven of the compartments. Barely five minutes after the collision the Andrea Doria had heeled more than 20 degrees to starboard. Water gushed into the damaged hull, flooding cabins and giving the ship a list that grew steadily heavier.
The chief engineer realised at once that with such a heavy list, the ship would eventually capsize and sink. They knew that they had already lost the battle against the huge volume of water that had entered the ship. At any moment the liner could turn turtle. It was essential that everyone abandon ship immediately: the captain ordered the crew to man the lifeboat stations.
A SPECTACULAR RESCUE MISSION
There was yet more bad news: the eight lifeboats on the port side could not be launched because the ship was listing too heavily. But the eight lifeboats to starboard could only accommodate 1004 people, and there were 1706 passengers and crew on board. People rushed up on to the deck in terror and confusion, some of them wearing their nightclothes, others still dressed in evening wear. Without outside help, the people on board would have been lost. The radio operator sent a distress signal giving the exact coordinates. It set in motion the greatest peacetime rescue mission at sea. Several ships in the immediate vicinity made straight for the accident. They included the Cape Ann, a freighter owned by the United Fruit Company, and the US Navy transport ship Private William H. Thomas. Stockholm also took part in the rescue despite the serious damage to her bows.
Dense banks of fog still rolled around the Andrea Doria. When the French liner the de France arrived, Captain Raoul de Beaudean could only make out the vague outlines of the two damaged ships. When the fog suddenly lifted, de Beaudean clearly saw the desperate plight of the Andrea Doria, by now listing to 40 degrees. He ordered ten lifeboats to be lowered, and most of the remaining passengers were rescued by the the de France.
The media were quickly on the spot, photographing from planes and helicopters and beaming pictures of the rescue operation around the world. Once the surviving passengers were safe, the crew were evacuated. Captain Calamai ordered his officers to abandon ship, but he was determined to go down with the Andrea Doria. His officers refused to leave the ship without him and he was the last person to board a lifeboat, at 5.30 am.
The collision claimed 46 lives on the Andrea Doria and five crewmen from the Stockholm. Amazingly, all those who survived the force of the initial collision were rescued. The Stockholm was able to steam to New York under its own power, and was eventually repaired and brought back into service. The stricken Andrea Doria continued to slowly capsize, and eventually disappeared beneath the waves at 10.09 am on July 26.
Many families were separated during the evacuation because so many different ships were involved in the rescue. The entire operation, and the human dramas on the dockside of New York, was reported in vivid detail by the world's news media.
a Nuclear bomb goes Missing
On January 17, 1966, an American KC-135 tanker plane and a B-52 bomber carrying four 1-megaton hydrogen bombs crashed while refuelling in the air over the Spanish Mediterranean coast. Pieces of wreckage and three of the bombs fell near the village of Palomares. But where was the fourth?
In 1966, the Cold War was at its height. Following the end of the Second World War, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union became increasingly hostile. During the 1950s and 60s both nations engaged in an arms race - a huge and expensive build-up of weaponry. The philosophy of the arms race -'mutually assured destruction' or 'MAD' - was to give each nation the ability to annihilate its enemy in retaliation for an attack. The concept of 'the ultimate deterrent' was effective, as there was no one issue over which any country was willing to destroy itself. Maintaining the deterrent involved stationing as many nuclear weapons as possible close to enemy territory, in order to launch an immediate strike if the Cold War turned 'hot'.
Long-range ballistic missiles were still under development. Instead, nuclear bombs were carried on board aircraft patrolling the fringes of the boundary between eastern and western Europe - the so-called 'Iron Curtain'. Few Europeans were aware that, for decades, US bombers laden with nuclear weapons circled the earth ceaselessly. The bombers were on permanent red alert, and in order not to waste valuable time with take-offs and landings, it was routine to refuel in flight.
A CRASH IN MIDAIR
Since 1950, there have been 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons, known as Broken Arrows. After the incident in the remote Spanish farming community of Palomares, nearly 2000 US military personnel and Spanish civil guards were rushed in to clean up the debris.
During one of these routine flights, in this case over southern Spain, an American B-52 bomber and a KC-135 tanker aircraft manoeuvred themselves into position for a refuelling operation they had carried out countless times. Suddenly the sky resounded with an ear-splitting bang. The aircraft had collided. With its full load of fuel, the KC-135 exploded. All four crewmen were killed. The B-52 also exploded. Three of its crew members died, but four parachuted to safety. All four hydrogen bombs on board the plane plummeted to earth. Each had a greater explosive yield than the atomic bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War.
Some of the village's older residents still remember vividly the day the accident happened. Although it was more than 40 years ago, it remains a taboo subject for many. At first sight, it appeared that the village - Palomares, near the port of Almeria on the southeastern corner of the Iberian Peninsula - had had a lucky escape. Both aircraft fell on to uninhabited farmland.
On April 7, 1966, 80 days after the mid-air collision, the US navy salvaged the fourth H-bomb from the sea bed. The 3-metre-long warhead was brought aboard the USS Petrel, its parachute still attached. The bomb - known as 'Robert' or bomb #4 - had been damaged, but had not ruptured.
It appeared that there was relatively little damage and there was relief that no-one on the ground had been killed. But over the next few days, specialists wearing protective clothing and carrying unfamiliar equipment took numerous readings. Bemused farm labourers working nearby had no idea what was going on. But when 2000 people were told to leave their homes at once, and to stay away from them until further notice, it became clear that what they had witnessed was no ordinary plane crash.
The investigators knew what the locals did not - that the crashed bomber had been carrying H-bombs. Miraculously, when the warheads hit the ground, they did not trigger a nuclear explosion. But the high-explosive priming charges inside two of the bombs had gone off and plutonium dust had spread over several hundred acres of farmland. A third bomb was intact. But worryingly, the fourth was still missing. There were a number of conflicting ideas about what had happened to it, and only one clue to its location, given by a fisherman who apparently saw it hit the water.
Day after day, ships patrolled off the Spanish coast, while divers were sent down to search for the missing weapon. Weeks passed with no success. Then, two months after the crash, the US Navy's deep-diving research vessel located the bomb eight miles offshore and 800 metres down on the sea bed.
THE GREAT COVER-UP
Cold War hot spots
The Berlin Airlift
In 1948 the Soviet Union directly challenged the West by instituting a blockade of the western sectors of Berlin. The USA and its allies airlifted food and other supplies into the city until the blockade was withdrawn.
The Berlin Wall
To halt the embarrassing flow of East Germans to the West, the East German government built the Berlin Wall in 1961, sealing off Soviet-controlled East Berlin from the rest of the city.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
In 1962, US intelligence discovered the presence of Soviet missile installations in Cuba. This resulted in a tense stand-off, although direct conflict was avoided when the Russian premier, Nikolai Khrushchev, ordered Russian ships carrying rockets to Cuba to return home rather than confront US naval ships that had been sent to intercept them.
Back on dry land, a major clean-up operation had quickly swung into action. Soil readings revealed that 558 acres, mainly used for tomato cultivation, had been contaminated with radioactive material. The US authorities were anxious to remove all trace of the accident from Spanish soil, whatever the cost. They undertook a huge decontamination effort over the next three months, involving around 1700 US servicemen and Spanish civil guards. Sixteen hundred tonnes of radioactive earth was taken to the United States and buried in South Carolina. The area underwater was left alone, even though its flora and fauna showed increased levels of radiation.
It was impossible to cover up the fact of the accident, but the military authorities kept a tight rein on the release of information to the media. Local villagers received no official notification as to what had happened, but not long after the accident they were allowed to return home. Rumours spread, though in the repressive atmosphere of Franco's Spain - with its reliance on harsh justice dealt by military tribunals - people were wary of asking awkward questions.
So everyone behaved as though nothing had happened and went back to work in their fields. But the name of Palomares had been tainted by the incident, and local farmers began to find it easier to sell their produce if they omitted to say where it came from.
The Spanish government was also anxious in case rumour frightened away the tourists who had begun to visit Almeria's coastal resorts. A few months after the crash, the public relations machine went into overdrive. Spain's minister for tourism and the US Ambassador even took a dip in the sea together for the cameras. Visitors were happy to believe the message that all was now safe and continued to flock to the area.
THE SHADOW OF THE PAST
On the surface, normality had returned, although even today some residents have regular blood and urine tests. Doctors have concluded that, more than 40 years after the crash, the local population does not suffer from a higher incidence of cancer than elsewhere. But the shadow of the contamination has not quite faded. Grandiose property development schemes are currently underway all over Almeria, with hotel complexes, apartment blocks and golf courses planned for Palomares. But deep foundations are required for such major building projects, and measurements taken from beneath the surface at the crash site in 2004 revealed unexpectedly high levels of radiation. Building work has been halted for the time being while scientists ascertain whether the site can ever be properly decontaminated. Local people are outraged - once again, their town is making headlines for all the wrong reasons, just when the future seemed brighter.
To prevent any contaminated areas from being built on, the Spanish government put a compulsory purchase order on the affected land; the plots won't be returned to their original owners until the experts have given the area the all-clear. For the people of Palomares the events of January 17, 1966, are still casting a lengthy shadow over their land.
TO BE CONTINUED