Thinking about the unthinkable

Why should we think about the unthinkable?

August 6 and 9 mark the 65th anniversary of the first (and so far only) use of nuclear weapons in warfare — attacks the United States unleashed on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

No one will ever know for certain how many people died in the attack on Hiroshima. The U.S. government estimates 70,000 people died from the initial blast, heat and radiation. By the end of 1945, the Hiroshima death toll likely surpassed 100,000, and the five-year total may have exceeded 200,000. It also will never be known how many people died as a result of the atomic attack on Nagasaki three days later. As many as 40,000 people died initially, with the death toll approaching 140,000 within five years.

Today, conservative estimates indicate there are more than 17,000 nuclear warheads in the world’s arsenals. The advent of suitcase-size atomic weapons useable by terrorists makes any city a potential target. The following considers that possibility in Louisville.

Final report on the nuclear attack on Louisville on Aug. 6, 2010:

Satellite imagery fixed the time of the explosion at 8:16 a.m. on Aug. 6, 2010. The location was determined to be about 100 yards to the Kentucky side of the center of the Clark Memorial Bridge connecting Louisville and Southern Indiana. Before and after maps of Louisville and Hiroshima determined the bomb detonated over the Ohio River measured 12.4 kilotons compared with 12.5 kilotons for the Hiroshima bomb. The Louisville explosion was the equivalent of 24.8 million pounds of TNT. Blast effects and fire destroyed a one-square-mile area in downtown Louisville, and an equivalent area in Clarksville and Jeffersonville. Significant damage was inflicted on residential neighborhoods as well. Damage to New Albany was mainly associated with what was later called the Ohio River Tsunami (ORT). Deaths resulting from the detonation and aftermath during the 12 months following Aug. 6, 2010, are estimated at 124,281: 28,500 by the blast; 53,000 from fire and radiation in the 24 hours following the detonation; and 73,281 from radiation sickness and related illnesses in the following 52 weeks. Injuries totaled 157,000. The economic effect of the explosion totaled $3.37 billion.

Blast Effects
In the first seconds, the fireball expanded to a diameter of 667 meters (nearly half the length of the bridge) and reached a temperature of tens of millions of degrees, vaporizing the structure. Louisville landmarks that were destroyed include the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the KFC Yum! Center, Slugger Field, the Louisville Ballet, the Humana offices near the river, the Galt House, the Kentucky Center for the Arts, the Muhammad Ali Center, and the offices of LEO Weekly. On the Indiana side of the river, hotels, condominiums, restaurants and small businesses were reduced to smoldering rubble, along with the Falls of the Ohio visitor center and the McAlpine Dam. In the succeeding 10 seconds, the blast wave moved north and south from the river packing a pressure of 7 tons per square inch. The Kennedy Bridge was slammed off its footings. The elevated portions of I-64 along the river were knocked down. Devastated were the historic buildings on Main and Market streets in Louisville, the National City Building, the Michael Graves Humana Building, E.on headquarters and Fourth Street Live. City Hall and Louisville Metro Police headquarters were significantly damaged. The hospital district suffered extensive damage.

The blast wave rolled up Second Street, incinerating cars, obliterating Christ Church Cathedral and removing from the map the YMCA and Jefferson Community and Technical College. In Indiana, the blast took out hundreds of cars on I-65, leveling travel-related businesses beside it. The tsunami wiped out Jeffboat and deposited barges and tugboats on dry land. The bomb caused three inbound airplanes to crash. One, a UPS cargo 747, crashed in Shively, killing 443 people on the ground and five on the plane, after its pilots were blinded by the initial flash. The two other inbound planes were carrying 143 and 79 passengers, respectively. One crashed near Floyds Knobs, the other in a park east of downtown Louisville.

Perhaps the most bizarre result of the bombing was the Ohio River Tsunami. The bomb went off less than 100 feet above the river, and its heat vaporized millions of gallons of water. Outward pressure drove water up river and down river in an ever-increasing height that sent 30-foot waves crashing over levies and flood walls, inundating portions of Butchertown, Portland and downtown New Albany and Jeffersonville.

Heat and Fire Effects
Neighborhoods situated behind downtown Louisville skyscrapers were somewhat protected from the heat and fire. Fires did ravage areas in Butchertown, Smoketown and Portland. Some houses in Old Louisville were incinerated. Small firestorms occurred in the neighborhood behind Clarksville’s abandoned Colgate plant and in populated areas of Jeffersonville’s riverfront. These conflagrations could not be extinguished, because the bomb ruptured water mains, and radiation made it impossible for firefighters to approach blazing structures. More than 3,000 homes were consumed. The number of fire deaths was set at 7,000.

Radiation Effects
The mushroom cloud filled with radioactive materials rose to an altitude of 50,000 feet by 9 a.m.

Radioactive ash began to fall over much of Metro Louisville. At noon, a black rain began to fall. Those within a half-mile of ground zero who were not sheltered received lethal doses of radiation. Most persons in frame houses, outdoors or in vehicles trying to escape the city received fatal doses of radiation. Those who sought shelter in brick or reinforced concrete buildings, deep in basements or sub-basements, fared better than those who attempted to flee. Medical personnel in safe, outlying hospitals developed a set of terms to refer to bomb victims and the likelihood of their survival. Those who had been within a mile of the blast and not in deep shelter were referred to as “ring one” survivors. They had virtually no chance of survival and were offered only palliative care. Those more than a mile but less than two miles from ground zero (“ring two”) had a moderate chance of survival and received treatment for burns, cuts and radiation sickness. People more than two miles from the hypocenter were the most likely to survive and were triaged so that only their most serious wounds or burns were treated. In fact, these “ring three” survivors were often enlisted to treat the more seriously injured.

The government had made careful plans to respond to such an eventuality. Within an hour, the governors of Indiana and Kentucky had declared states of emergency in the greater Louisville area. National Guard troops arrived and set up field hospitals and shelters by late afternoon. Nuclear response teams with special support for atomic bomb survivors were on site late in the evening. By the third day, the South End was home to thousands of federal troops, medical personnel and refugee workers. On Aug. 9, radiation-proof buses began rescuing people in rings one and two who had taken shelter in fortified buildings. Radiation experts spent the next three weeks establishing a “fire break” line to be bulldozed around the most radioactive areas and posted with barbed wire to prevent access. In November, rebuilding began in areas not experiencing high levels of radioactivity. One square mile of downtown Louisville and a similar size area north of the river were deemed permanently uninhabitable.


‘Countdown to Zero’
The documentary “Countdown to Zero” — which premieres in Louisville Friday — chronicles the history of the atomic bomb from its infancy to an era in which nine countries possess nuclear weapons, with others racing to become armed. From the creators of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the film includes both historic footage and recent interviews in making a case for worldwide nuclear disarmament.

Aug. 6-12
Village 8 Theatres