Vultures Row: The Day the World Almost Died

The Day the World Almost Died

Most people in America recall the early 80s with fondness.  AIDS was still, “just a gay thing” Uncle Ronnie was in office, and Parachute pants were sooooo cool!

But for most of us, we do not know that just after midnight (Moscow time) on September 26, 1983 the world almost saw a full scale nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, 44 was sitting In the commander’s chair of the Serpukhov-15, the secret USSR command bunker hidden in a forest 30 miles northeast of Moscow, looking down from his mezzanine desk to the gymnasium-sized main floor filled with about 120 military officers and technicians charged with monitoring the U.S. missile system and retaliating instantly at the first sign of any nefarious activity.   Some one shouted out in alarm and all attention was focused on the man.  The new satellite monitoring system picked up a thermal bloom in one of the American Minute Man missile silos.  A Thermal bloom is an infrared signature that indicated the launch of a missile, then another and another and another and a fifth one.  

Believing they were under a surprise nuclear missile attack, the staff prepared to alert the high command and order a full strike of more than three thousand missiles.  Once the order was given there would be no recalling it, there was no fail safe measure, no way to stop the night mare.  Lt. Col Petrov held his “Red Phone” in one hand shouting orders to calm his staff down and get them to verify the launch.  He had a hunch, if America was starting a nuclear war, why would they only launch five missiles?  Why were the vaunted American missile submarines not launching, why were the B-52 bombers still on the ground?  He held off on the knee jerk reaction to strike back that he and all other watch commanders had been trained to do.  He waited, he stalled for five critical minutes.  In those minutes it was verified that there was no US launch. It was later determined that the Thermal Blooms that the new system had detected was nothing more than the sun reflecting off of clouds over the Minute Men bases.  

Had Lt. Col. Petrov ordered the launch, the us would have detected their launch and believed that it was a first strike.  Thousands of missiles would have crossed each other on their way to their targets.

Petrov received a special World Citizen Award at a UN meeting in New York on January 19, 2006. Petrov was honored as the “Man Who Averted Nuclear War”.  But for his foresight and intuition, Lt. Col. Petrov was reassigned to busy work, his career over. He would never gain another promotion and he would never see success.  His wife became ill with cancer, he retired from active duty to tend to her.  When she died, he borrowed money to give her a funeral.

Today, Petrov, 67, lives in Moscow on a monthly pension of less than $200.


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