Marking the history of the night the bombs fell
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on July 1, 2012 1:50 AM
Tommy Jarrett points to the state historical marker at the intersection of N.C. 222 and Faro Road in Eureka. The marker commemorate the Jan. 24, 1961 B-52 crash.
EUREKA -- The crash was inevitable as soon as the right wing broke off a Seymour Johnson Air Force Base B-52 -- when the nose of the massive aircraft dove toward the ground.
There would be an explosion -- a raging fire.
That much was certain.
But the fate of the eight crew members on board was still in doubt.
And as the airframe broke apart in the skies over century-old country houses and tobacco farms, it was still unclear just what would happen to its cargo, two Mark 39 nuclear bombs -- weapons designed to impose more than 200 times the damage inflicted on Japan at the end of the Second World War.
"Two thermonuclear bombs came out of that airplane ... in such a way that they came reasonably close to detonation," said Joel Dobson, the author of "The Goldsboro Broken Arrow," a book that details all that unfolded Jan. 24, 1961. "Between those two bombs, we had 500 Hiroshimas raining down on Faro."
So when, more than 51 years after the crash, the residents of that small community gathered for the unveiling of a historical highway marker immortalizing their brush with catastrophe, they paused to remember the three airmen who perished that morning -- and the thousands more who might have had it not been for the "noble men" from Faro and beyond who worked diligently to prevent Armageddon.
Earl Lancaster wasn't trying to be a hero when he set out for the crash site in the makeshift fire truck he and other members of the upstart Faro Volunteer Fire Department built out of an old dump truck and water tank.
"All he could see was flames," Dobson said. "That takes gumption."
And William Darden and Landis Davis were simply doing their job when they trekked through the woods on a blustery winter night to search for survivors.
"It was about 10 degrees," Dobson said. "Snowy, wet, miserable conditions."
They joined the department for the same reason that drives current members of the force.
"You think about community. You think about family," said Randy Gray, Faro's current fire chief. "It's just in us to help."
James Parkhurst nodded his head.
"If I got a call to somebody's house tonight, I would give my life up to try to save and help their family. That's what a rural fire department is all about," he said. "It's not a hero thing. It's about serving your community -- just like those guys who worked that crash site that night."
Diane McKeel Whitley can still feel the crashing plane shake her home.
"I was 10," she said. "I just felt it yank the covers off of me."
And Lancaster can hear a member of the Air Force tell him to flee the scene he had, hours earlier, responded to.
"He came down and told us to get as far away as we could," he said.
Shirley Daniels Pike remembers thinking she was facing "the end of time."
"When I looked out the window, it looked like the world was on fire," she said.
But perhaps the most poignant recollection shared Friday afternoon came from Jack ReVelle -- one of the men charged with disarming those two Mark 39s -- moments after he introduced three members of his team to the hundreds who converged at the intersection of Hwy. 222 and Faro Road for the unveiling of the marker.
"These are the gentlemen who saved your county," he said. "(They showed) what we as Americans can do in the face of adversity."
The ceremony was over and the crowd had dissipated.
Life along the quiet roads of Faro had returned to normal.
And its residents understood that for many of the outsiders in attendance, Friday was their first -- and perhaps last -- trip to that rural community.
The unveiling of that highway marker was, in many ways, really for them -- for the men and women who rarely find their way to the scene of Wayne County's near-demise.
The truth is, the Faro Volunteer Department didn't need a formal gathering to understand just what happened that fateful night.
They see it on the aging faces of the men who faced the fire.
And they carry it with them on every call.
They don't serve for plaques or visits from state officials.
They do it for each other.
"Out here, when they give you that address, you start going through your mind. You go to naming the people. It's not just an address. It's Mr. Earl's house. It's Mr. William's house," said Ivey Lanier, a longtime member of the department. "So you find a different gear. It may be two o'clock in the morning, but you went from dragging to, 'Oh my God ... I got to go now.'"
"That's right," he said. "You know, we all joined to serve. We all joined to help. That's why we volunteer our time. We want to help the community.
"There is nothing that could be called in to Faro where we don't go, whether it's a B-52 crash or a cat in a tree."