Simo Orts and the Missing American [Redacted]

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On January 17, 1966 – at the height of the Cold War – a B-52 and KC-135 tanker collided while conducting aerial refueling over the air above Palomares, Spain. Of the eleven total crewmembers of both planes, seven were found dead near the Palomares cemetery, and over the next three months, eighteen vessels and over 3,800 men would undertake a search and recovery mission which cost over $84 million.[1] Missing was one of four Mark 28 hydrogen bombs lost in the accident, and the man who led American rescue efforts was a 46-year-old fisherman – Francisco Simo Orts.[2]

Initial American efforts located three of the four bombs involved in the accident within eighteen hours of the accident in the Spanish countryside. While there was no detonation of the actual warheads, the casings of the bombs had spit, leaking Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239 and necessitating the removal, containment, and secure storage of 265 acres of topsoil. The last bomb, however, had landed five miles off the Spanish coast in the Mediterranean Sea, near Orts’ 66-foot fishing boat Manuela Orts Simo. Orts had been fishing the same area over the last 17 years, and after recovering the three crewmembers that had landed in the water nearby, noted his position and immediately disclosed the location to the American search parties.[3]

Due to the sensitive nature of the accident, American representatives were reluctant to disclose the fact that the plane was carrying nuclear devices until three days after the accident.[4] Secrecy was paramount to the effect that an information officer, when pressed about apparent precautions being taken for radiation, could only offer: “I have no comment to make about anything, and I cannot comment on why I have to say ‘no comment’.”[5] In the midst of the confusion of the publicity, Orts offered assistance on three separate occasions, claiming he knew where the missing device was. Technology in the form of various forms of sonar, deep sea television, divers, and shore-based navigational equipment were used to search a computer-predicted “Zone of High Probability” – a triangle 20 miles long and 10 miles at the base,[6] but on a test dive conducted on an apparent whim at the location provided by Orts, the submersible Alvin found the bomb 80 minutes after starting the dive[7]. After almost losing Alvin, a remotely operated vehicle, and the bomb several times, the bomb was recovered from a depth of 2,850 feet.


Orts was awarded a medallion, a scroll testifying gratitude and appreciation, and $5,000 for his assistance, but later filed a claim for $5 million for his service to the United States.[8] Turning down a local newspaper’s offer for a new fishing boat, Orts reduced his claim to $150,000 – only to finally be offered $10,000 in 1971.[9] For the village of Palomares, the U.S. contracted the construction of a desalinization plant at a cost of $427, 272, but overall relations between Spain and the United States were irrevocably damaged because of the accident.[10]



Gores, Joseph. Marine Salvage – The Unforgiving Business of No Cure, No Pay. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971.

Megara, John W., “Dropping Nuclear Bombs on Spain – The Palomares Accident of 1966 and the U.S. Airborne Alert” Master’s thesis, Florida State University, 2006. Accessed on November 9, 2015.

[1] John W. Megara, “Dropping Nuclear Bombs on Spain – The Palomares Accident of 1966 and the U.S. Airborne Alert” (Master’s thesis, Florida State University, 2006), 33

[2] Joseph Gores, Marine Salvage – The Unforgiving Business of No Cure, No Pay, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971, 80

[3] Ibid., 81

[4] Ibid., 82

[5] Ibid., 83

[6] Ibid., 87

[7] Ibid., 90

[8] Megara, “Dropping Nuclear Bombs on Spain – The Palomares Accident of 1966 and the U.S. Airborne Alert”, 68

[9] Ibid., 68

[10] Ibid., 84


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