Wayne County residents woke up and went about their daily routine on Jan. 24, 1961.

None had any idea how close they had come to being consumed in an overnight nuclear holocaust.

It was just after midnight Jan. 23-24 when a B-52 bomber stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base suffered a fuel leak and broke apart before impact.

Five of the eight-member crew survived.

The plane was on fire before the crash and left debris scattered over a large area in northeastern Wayne County, near the Faro community.

It was carrying two 3.8-megaton hydrogen bombs, each with roughly the equivalent of 4 million tons of TNT.

One bomb's parachute tangled in a tree. The other bomb buried itself in the ground.

Parts of that bomb, including what is known as a squash made of uranium, were never recovered and remain buried in a Faro farm field.

It has been 56 years since a 24-year-old Airman 1st Class Earl Smith climbed down into a hole to disarm that bomb.

He was just nine months out of explosive ordnance disposal school.

Tuesday morning, as Smith, 79, who now lives in Lincoln, Alabama, stood in what is now a nondescript Faro soybean field, his memories, fears and sense of excitement were as fresh as they were 56 years ago.

Smith said that until just recently he had put that night out of his mind for more than 50 years.

But that changed last year when he was told about the story being on the Internet. Smith said he was the first man on-site by several hours and that he felt the time had come to correct some of the stories about who did what that night -- particularly where disarming the bombs are concerned.

Some stories that have been published are not correct, he said.

Smith worked off and on in that hole for three days, including disarming the live bomb and looking for parts.

He did so without the benefit of a radiation suit and instead wore what amounted to a heavy-duty rain suit with the sleeves and ankles taped.

Smith remembers being worried about radioactivity and chest pains that he feared would lead to a heart attack.

But Smith said when he looked out of the hole and saw a truck with a big medical cross on it, he realized the pains were a panic attack and that he would be OK and continued his work.

"It was a time I will never forget. You know when you are young you are kind of crazy," he said. "I had volunteered. I'd go down to Fort Bragg on occasion and work on (firing) range clearance. I loved to work on them because they'd have ordnance out there that had what they called a lucky fuse.

"A two-degree weather change could set them off. It was just exciting to go down there and pick them up."

Smith, one of four explosive ordnance disposal personnel at the base, was on standby the night of the crash.

"I was at home in bed asleep," he said. "So I got the call from the tower," he said. "They called and said a B-52 is coming in with a fuel leak in the bomb bay area. The plane hadn't crashed at that time. I threw my clothes on. I didn't take time to lace my boots. I just wrapped them around and headed to the base.

"I had a feeling it won't going to turn out good."

By the time he arrived at the base, it had been determined the plane had crashed near Faro.

Smith was taken to the site by helicopter and didn't have time to gather materials and instructions, or even a Geiger counter.

"I just jumped onboard the helicopter," he said.

They didn't need the aircraft's searchlight -- the sky was lit up by fire that was "everywhere you looked," he said.

Smith said his first thought when he arrived was that he needed to use the bathroom.

"There was a little bit of fear involved there," he said. "It was mind boggling. I look and I see the bomb over here in a tree. I thought, 'Oh my God. Where is the other bomb?'

"I just knew there was radiation everywhere."

The first bomb was hanging by its parachute from the tree that is no longer there.

A general on the helicopter told the pilot not to get too close.

"I said, 'No sir. You need to get me as close as you can,'" Smith said.

The general also said they had to get permission from the Atomic Energy Commission before they could do anything about the bombs.

"I said, 'No sir. No sir. We don't have to do that,'" Smith said. "The bomb had a little sheet of ice where it had fallen through the atmosphere. I always carried a little pouch with me, and I scrapped off the ice."

He breathed a sigh of relief after opening the access door and saw that the bomb was safe.

However, Strategic Air Command policy required that at least two men disarm a bomb.

About an hour to an hour and a half lapsed before help arrived, 1st Sgt. Joe N. Fincher, Sgt. Tolbert Evers and Sgt. John T. Fletcher.

"They are the ones to get the credit," he said. "I want that clear, they are the ones to get the credit of actually disarming the first bomb. It wasn't anybody else. It wasn't me. I opened the door. I believe it was Sgt. Fincher who reaches in and disconnected the two black leads. They had to be done in exact sequence or it would set the bomb off.

"We had to wait three minutes then I believe it was Sgt. Evers reaches in and disconnects the others. That officially made that bomb safe. There was really nothing else left to do to that bomb except load it on a trailer and take it back to the base. It wasn't safe up to that point."

It was several hours later before the second bomb was found.

"It was armed," he said. "In my opinion, the reason we didn't have a major explosion -- that bomb would have actually been a dud. It has probably never been said."

Also, the impact had separated the bomb fuse as well, he said.

"But it was an eerie feeling to look and see the arming switch was on armed," he said.

Smith said he was the low-ranking man and was the one who went into the hole with the second bomb.

"When I got to the nuclear pit (container), I picked it up and pulled it up between my legs," he said. "Whoever it was I handed stuff up to I made the statement, 'I guess I won't have any more children.'"

The pit was surrounded by 32 detonators that explode and put "a squeeze" on it which causes the nuclear detonation, he said.

"The squash, which is out here somewhere, once that (pit) goes off, it puts a squeeze on that and that is where you get the hydrogen explosion," he said.

The squash is not dangerous even though it is uranium which is found in the ground, he said.

"But I was concerned about the water for a long time," Smith said. "It got to the point I heard where some people weren't drinking the well water."

The water was sampled for some time after that, he said.

"I put some water in a cup and drank it, and the old-timers who saw me drink it started drinking it," he said.

Smith said the hole dug around the bomb and in search of parts got so large that he recalled seeing bulldozers working in it.

Smith spent 96 hours at the site during the first week, 88 hours the next week and 80 some during the third week.

Overall, he spent three months working at the site.

Even in the face of disaster there was still some humor, Smith said.

"They said there was a sharecropper who looked up and saw that bomb and that bomb had fell here with that big parachute, and he thought the Russians were invading," Smith said. "So he grabbed a pone of cornbread, some milk and some blankets.

"They said they found him seven hours later when they were looking for Maj. (Eugene) Sheldon (the aircraft's radio navigator) hiding under some bushes."