As It Happens

U.S. veteran sues military half-century after classified Cold War disaster

After an American B-52 bomber exploded over Spain in 1966, hundreds of soldiers were deployed to help scrub plutonium from the area. Now, one of those veterans tells us how it feels to be filing a class-action lawsuit against the government a half-century later.

Victor Skaar says he was exposed to radiation cleaning up plutonium after a B-52 bomber exploded over Spain

Victor Skaar is seen fifth from left in this official U.S. air force photograph. (Submitted by Victor Skaar)
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Victor Skaar is a retired chief master sergeant with the U.S. air force. In 1966, he was one of hundreds of soldiers deployed to help clean up a crash site after an American B-52 bomber exploded over the small town of Palomares, Spain. 

It was the Cold War and the air force kept the accident a closely guarded secret. In a recent statement to the New York Times, the air force maintained that troops at Palomares did not suffer harmful exposure to radiation. But years later, Skaar says many of his fellow veterans who were part of that cleanup crew have died — and he draws a direct link to the work they did at that crash site. 

Now, Skaar's class-action lawsuit against the United States Department of Veteran Affairs has been certified. 

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Skaar about the incident and the legal milestone. Here is part of their conversation. 

How did it feel to find out that after all these years your class-action lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs has been certified?

When I received the call, I teared up. It's that simple. I just couldn't believe it. It was fantastic news.

An unidentified U.S. soldier looks through the material found after a U.S. B-52 bomber crashed during aerial refuelling in 1966, causing four hydrogen bombs to fall to Earth in Palomares, Spain. (AP Photo/National Archive Record Administration, Washington D.C., File)

How did you and the other air force personnel end up being exposed to this radiation?

It was an aircraft accident. During the ugly but peaceful Cold War, the Strategic Air Command United States Air Force kept loaded bombers in the air and that's no secret anymore.

But this was a normal refuelling over the coast of Spain. This little village was selected because of its remoteness.

While they were lining up for refuelling, the boom of the tanker made contact with a vital spot of the B-52, of the bomber, and broke the bomber open.

The fire immediately went up into the tanker with loaded fuel, obviously, and they just ignited. Four people on that aircraft perished. There were seven men on the bomber. Four of them survived and the others were perished.

And four of the H-bombs dispersed and the high explosives exploded upon impact. 

But now — just to clarify for people who think that the four hydrogen bombs landed — they were not actually carrying a nuclear detonation. Right? 

Oh, they're ready. But they're not armed. They're never armed until they are told to go to war. 

Good thing. But what they did have was a lot of plutonium on them. So that became the big issue that needed to be cleaned up.

Absolutely. Upon that explosion, those warheads broke open, two of them, and then they dispersed that plutonium, which is something, you know, we can't even see it. But it has a half-life of 26,000 years. 

So that element was dispersed on the ground and in the air. Our job was to find it, and then decontaminate, and then dispose of it.

A B-52 bomber's nose and cockpit are seen during the Joint Services Open House and Air Show on May 16, 2008, at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. ( Brendan Smialowski/Stringer/Getty Images)

So there were many hundreds of troops scrambled together by the air force to clean up what must have been a very large debris site with a lot of plutonium-laced material.

Absolutely.

It took 62 days from the time we started until the time that we had the last of 5,400 barrels filled with contaminated material, sealed and quality-controlled, and ready to go to the beach to go to the navy for dock transport to the United States. 

And during all that time, you and the others were exposed to this plutonium. Were you given protective gear? What kind of clothing or supplies were you given to protect yourselves from the plutonium?

We went there with minimal respiratory protection. That which we had, which was the old gas masks, was totally inappropriate for the work that we had to do.

So people ended up using doctors' surgical masks. Well, they have a purpose in a laboratory or in a hospital but not for what we expected. So there was no adequate protection.

We were military sent to do a job. We had to do that job, just like men were going to the battle had to do their job. 

At what point did you find out that you personally had had an exposure that might be affecting your health?

I retired [from the] U.S. air force [in] '81.

In '82 I started noticing a blood disorder. So then I submitted a claim to the Veterans Association, in '82 and '84. They denied it. They denied it because there were "no records available." And that's a quote.

I decided, I'm going to fight this sucker. So I've tried to get my medical records. I wasn't after anybody else's, except mine. And under the Freedom of Information Act, I should be able to get that. But they said, these records do not exist. And that's when I told them, "I know they're there, and I'm going to find them."

When I finally got my records, I found that I had submitted six specimens. First one was after about two weeks or so after I was there. I had 25 per cent of ... the life permissible dose, in 24 hours. 

And then you found out you weren't alone — that there were others.

There were others. When I got my records, the air force also provided me 25 others, I guess by clerical accident, or something. 

I immediately contacted them and informed them that their records were available. 

A U.S. military diver guides an Alvin mini-submarine into the water near Palomares after a B-52 bomber crashed with a tanker plane during aerial refuelling in 1966. (AP Photo/National Archive Record Administration, Washington D.C. File)

So how many people do you know that have already succumbed to cancers and illnesses that you believe were related to that work?

My two closest comrades, who were senior to me, were nearest that weapon all the time. Both of those died within the first 10 years after they left. Subsequently, just in '95, I contacted these 25. I got some communications back from them and I've since gotten letters and telephone calls from three widows of comrades.

I'm now speaking to widows, rather than my friends. 

It's terrible news that you're getting. But at the same time, you can advance this class-action suit. This has now been approved. So at this point, do you feel [that] at least you might be able to help those who have survived? You might be able to get them justice? 

Absolutely ma'am, through folks like you ... and others that are willing to put this information out before enough people. 

The military, the air force, needs to get involved.


Written by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes and John McGill. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.