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Missile Silos Part 4


ICBM Idiocy


The Titan I sites as they exist today are pretty hazardous really.  I believe I've tried to make that point at other times throughout this site.  Its true, it really is, and if you're the sort to break into such places (an act that even I cannot condone even a little bit) ill-prepared and over-confident of your abilities to anticipate and avoid the many obstacles and potentially-injurious aspects of the dank darkness that are the defunct Titan I sites, I must urge you never, ever to do what I describe below.  It was unequal parts curiosity, stupidity and outright insanity.  I figure a distribution of approximately 30%/50%/20% of the aforementioned attributes.


It was somewhere around the Fall of 2003 and I knew that I was going to be losing my access to 724-C soon as it was going to become property of someone else and my services as caretaker/tour guide were not needed by the new owner.


I had crawled all over just about every inch of the site including the water-logged launcher #3, and the claustrophobic launcher air filtration facility along with the submerged propellant terminal #1 and adjoining LOX tunnel-- even going to far as to squeeze through openings only 18" in diameter to see the fuel tunnel and the silo side of the LOX tunnel firewall.


Most times I was completely alone and armed with a flashlight when exploring.  If anything had happened to me, it would likely have been days or weeks before anyone thought to look for me, and much longer before anyone thought to check the missile site for my mortal remains.


There was, despite my adventurous and explorative nature, one place I had seen precious little of, and another I had not seen at all.  With my mind completely gone, I set about planning on how to see, first-hand these last few places where previously I had not dared to tread.


I am of course speaking of the missile silos, and more specifically, the catwalk level of the silos.  This is the once man-accessible area at the very top inside the silos where the elevator motor, crib locks, leveling jacks and to me, many unknowns still existed.


The Plan:


The blueprints I had show little of this area, and absolutely nothing of the physical equipment at the silo catwalk level.  Since the bottom of the silos-- the Holy Grail of the Titan I sites-- were all filled with water, the next best thing would be to ascend to the silo cap and see that for myself.


I had done my reconnaissance and visited each launcher multiple times and gotten many pictures, and so armed with this information, I began to plan my assault.


A pencil sketch of my insane assault on 724-C's silo #3 made about 2 days after my successful expedition.  The reason this was done after the fact is that until I made the trip, many of the details were not well known or known at all.


Site 724-C's launcher silos were all in different conditions and at vastly different water levels during my time there.

  • Silo #1 was flooded to a depth of about 70' and seemed to be missing the most of all 3 silos.  The LOX and Fuel cribs were gone and it appeared as though a lot more features had been removed from the walls.

  • Silo #2 had the least water in it and was flooded to a depth of around 40 to 50 feet but retained the fuel crib for some reason when silo #1 and silo #3 did not.  As a result, you could see a lot more of silo #2, though there was not much to see 30' below the personnel tunnel.

  • Silo #3 was flooded up to the personnel tunnel (about 100' deep) but retained some features of the LOX piping that the other 2 silos did not.

An overhead sketch of silo #3 made after surviving one of the dumbest endeavors of my entire life, which I had very nearly shortened by the execution of said endeavor.


Let me remind you of the absolute darkness as I climbed in the dark clutching a flashlight in one hand while wearing no safety gear whatsoever.


As silo #3 had the most water in it at 100' feet of flooding, I chose it for safety reasons.  If you're going to fall in water, make it as short a fall as possible!


Looking over my photos and blueprints I plotted a course that would take me (see highlighted route in the first sketch above) around a large water conduit near the personnel tunnel and onto a large air duct which I could traverse toward the LOX tunnel and its flanking counter-weight rails.  From that point I would scale the walls using fire suppression conduit to get as high up as I could.  Where the fire water conduit ended I would scale higher using the counter-weight rails until I reached 2 critical obstacles: some flimsy ductwork directly over head and the large water conduit above that.  How I was to surmount these obstacles was uncertain, as was the terrain beyond and how I might proceed.  I was just going to have to see if I could figure it out.


The water conduit was of particular concern as it forced me to climb around something that protruded over 20" into empty space without any clear idea of what hand holds there were at that point.  The duct work served as an obstacle as it was clearly not safe to climb on.  Fortunately, it was torn away in the area I needed to climb through.


At that point, I would be at a point where I could reach the elevator motor platform which was about 6' lower than the rest of the catwalk level and would be the most readily available access.


That was the plan...


The Stupidity:


Sure I was an idiot-- no question, but in my defense I did try to plan in order to make my crazy climb as safe as it could be.  In all honesty, I did a lousy job in the end.


I attempted to cobble together a rudimentary safety harness and line, but I used cheap poly rope from a hardware store and a few non man-rated D-rings.  It was crap really.  Still, I donned this junk and began my journey knowing full well I might never be heard from again.


As proof of my lack of sensibility I informed no one of my intent to make this climb and I did it completely alone.  There I was, a single (stupid) man with a backpack of tools (in case I found anything worth taking with me) and film, wearing no safety gear while climbing in complete darkness with a large flashlight in one hand and a cheap camera hanging from my neck.


The potential to fall was enormous, as was the possibility of being knocked unconscious by such a fall.  If such an event were to occur, my unknown whereabouts coupled with the very inaccessible location would have made recovery and identification of my remains very difficult and unlikely to happen in short order.  We're talking dental records here...


This the where my lack of skill with photographic equipment and my possession of cheap, crappy camera equipment become quite lamentable.  Either over or under-exposed, always grainy, I wish I could say the images get better as I progressed, but sadly, no, they do not.


The Insanity:


I reached the entrance to silo #3 and put on my ridiculous (and doubtlessly quite ineffectual) harness and backpack of tools, checked to ensure I had film, replacement batteries, a backup light and took a deep breath.


I easily skirted the vertical pipe and traversed the ductwork as planned.  Climbing the fire suppression pipes was no problem either.


Silo #3 as viewed from atop the LOX line near its emergence from the LOX tunnel.  This shot is terribly over-exposed but with my cheap, crummy camera I am thankful that any image was produced at all.  Sadly, affordable digital cameras were not available at the time.  Affordable to me that is...


So far so good.


Perched on top of the LOX line, I took this shot before heading up the wall.  This was the easy part!


Looking toward the personnel tunnel from the LOX tunnel of silo #3.  This is roughly the view I had before beginning the climb up the silo wall.  You can see the large air duct (with the big dent) at the bottom right, with the smaller LOX line above it.


This shot shows the water level reaching right up to the bottom of the personnel tunnel.


My view looking up the silo wall toward the large red water pipe (at the center of the shot) that I would somehow need to get over.  The smaller pipe below it provided a very good foot-hold however.


I took a few pictures along the way and even though I hadn't had any trouble so far, the danger of my precarious situation was far from forgotten.


When I had first arrived at silo #3, my breathing and pulse were essentially normal, but as I began to make my assault on the silo I found myself breathing quite rapidly indeed.  My pulse had skyrocketed and pounded in my ears where it was clearly audible to me in the deathly silence surrounding me.  I wondered if I might suffer a heart attack or possibly even pass out-- an absolute catastrophe should it occur.


I ended up not using my lousy harness at all as it seemed more dangerous to try to affix it to points along the way than to forget it existed.  Luckily the ascent went as planned-- that is until I reached "the pipe".


Climbing to the top of the counter-weight rail, the large fire water pipe was about 3 feet over my head (see next photo).  I stood up and tried to see what was up there, but from where I was I couldn't see the top at all.  At this point I was experiencing raw terror like never before.  Sure I had been frightened many times before but it was always brief, like when someone jumps out to frighten you or you have a close call while driving:  It scares you for a moment and then you quickly relax again.


This however, was sustained terror that would not subside and it was far from over.  Why had I not turned back and gone home?  I tried to calm down (and failed) and clenched my teeth and forced myself to continue.


Along the first leg of my route, I am situated at this point on a stout pipe support looking at an explosion-proof light fixture.  Above this fixture you can see the remains of the flimsy ductwork which has been partially torn loose from the wall.


Beyond the light you can see the vertical structure of the counter- weight rail.  It was the top of this rail that would provide a step up to the large water line above (at upper right).


I stood up on the counter-weight rail and reached blindly for a hand hold on top of the pipe.  Finding a large U-bolt I could hang onto, I pulled myself up onto the pipe and surveyed the situation.


I could not see very well what hand or footholds I might have to climb further up, or worse yet, back down.  Luckily, there was a smaller water pipe above and some other hardware that gave me ample purchase to haul myself up further  At this point there was about a 3-story drop between myself and cold, dark water.  In that water floated perhaps 15 or 20 dead rats which had fallen from above after infiltrating the gaps in the silo doors;  I was loathe to join them.


Climbing up onto the small pipe, I now stood on a surface about 3" wide and perhaps 2" away from the silo wall.  From there I took no pictures as I did not dare let go of the pipes I clung to.  Above and to my right the solid concrete wall dropped down to a ledge that was about at chest height.  This was the area where the enormous elevator motor platform had been.  If I could just find a way to pull myself up, I would be home free!


Sidling over to the ledge, I peered across the expanse of bare, flat concrete and spotted a very lucky break: one corner of the elevator platform had been mounted about 20" in from the edge of the ledge.  At that spot, 9 stubs of thick threaded bolts protruded upward jaggedly from a large steel plate where they had been hastily cut off.  The edge of one of the bolts was just within reach, and although it was perhaps only 5" tall, it appeared to be good enough to pull myself up and out of the silo.


I set down my flashlight on the ledge and holding onto the bolt, pulled myself up with both arms until I could reach and 2nd bolt and then hauled the rest of my body up onto the dark, dusty ledge where I moved back away from the abyss and rested a while.


As I waited for my heartbeat to slow somewhat, this is what I saw around me:


The former location of the launcher elevator motor platform.  


The 2 larger pipes visible are the hydraulic lines for one of the silo doors.  This area was once occupied almost entirely by machinery, but was mostly empty when I arrived.  The floor was covered with tiny cinders from steel cutting torches used by the salvage contractors.


Looking up I saw the rusty steel-clad ceiling streaked with minerals from water infiltration and dotted and crisscrossed with numerous pipes, conduits, bolts, hangers, hoses, wires and other hardware.


Another view of the ceiling over the elevator platform.  There is a large channel at left where the hydraulic ram for one of the silo doors used to be mounted.  


Hydraulic lines flank the spot where the ram used to be.  I was surprised looking at the blueprints to find that these massive doors only used 1 ram per leaf.  Surprising that it was left as a single point of failure.  If a ram failed you simply couldn't launch from that silo since you couldn't open the bloody doors!


Around where I sat, the actual catwalk was about 6 feet above me on either side of the platform.  I would have to climb one of the walls on either side of me to see it.  There was a section of ladder-like cable tray already leaning against one wall so I climbed up to see the rest of the silo.


The catwalk: the first thing I saw were these 2 flexible hydraulic lines.  I believe they went to the cribwork to supply the work platforms and other functions.  You can see that the area is rather in disarray with platforms askew and in a state of dislocation.  They appear to have been cut free and moved aside to allow the cribwork to be hoisted out of the silo in one large piece.


On the catwalk I found a cramped and cluttered walkway.  There was a lot of hydraulic piping at this level and there were valves, connectors and hoses everywhere.  At four points around the silo there were huge concrete "pillow blocks"-- an outcropping  structure to shoulder the load of very heavy movable structures above-- in this case the entire crib structure and missile.


Each of these pillow blocks actually protrudes out over the open silo and since there was a pedestal with a 50-ton vertical jack assembly mounted on top, you couldn't actually walk behind the pillow block.  Instead, small steel platforms with steps had been installed to provide passage around the block over the open silo.  However, the first of these was torn away and rested at a disconcerting angle on top of other structures of uncertain stability.  I wasn't going to walk on those, so instead I climbed around the vertical jack.


A pillow block (at right) with an unstable de-installed platform resting on part of its access platform's railing.  I didn't use the platform, I climbed over the pillow block instead.  Much safer.


The four pillow blocks and vertical jacks comprised the crib jacks; these supported the "floating" cribwork and allowed it some flexibility when the missile was on alert but not in a countdown.  When the missile was set to launch, these jacks and massive jaw-like crib locks would support and secure the cribwork in place to provide a solid launch platform.


The platforms that skirt one of the pillow blocks.  This one was not passable.  You can see the yawning blackness of the silo in the background.


One of the 50 ton vertical lifting jack assemblies in each quadrant of the silo.  I had to climb over where the green flashlight is resting to get around it-- far safer than going around the front!


My reward for risking my life multiple times it turned out, was rather a disappointment really, but suffice to say my curiosity was largely satisfied.  The following pictures are a pretty good representation of what there is to be seen at the catwalk level today.  Still, I hope it will be of interest to those who don't care to take completely foolish risks themselves and would otherwise not be able to see this strange and unusual location any other way.


More hydraulic equipment and a large array of hose connections I believe ran to the cribwork and supplied other assemblies on the catwalk.  This area was full of piping so I had to climb along the top to pass more easily.


More hydraulics and valves.  The two smaller, rusted pipes ran just about the entire circumference of the silo and sprouted other small offshoots such as the one you see here.


As I made my way around the mouth of the silo, I was sure to snap lots of pictures.  I took plenty of time looking around and carefully choosing interesting shots while I waited for my heart rate to return to normal (it never really did) as I did so.  So after spending all that time taking pictures and carefully exploring the somewhat limited scenery, I realized that my film was not advancing and all the pictures I thought I had taken were in fact lost.  !!@#$!!  These pictures were actually taken on my trip back around the silo to where I had climbed up onto the elevator platform.  I tried to re-capture the shots I took on my way through the first time, but of course I really felt the lost pictures would have been better somehow.


Another pillow block with a passable catwalk.  Still, I found it unnerving to walk on it.


The narrow catwalk skirting the pillow block


About half way around the silo there was this pipe which appeared to have been violently jarred or ripped loose.  Perhaps it was simply damaged during the removal of the crib structure or simply ripped free?


Across from the twisted pipe connection was this large steel pipe and hose resting on the railing and hanging into the silo.  I believe this was once part of the launcher #3 silo sump discharge which once purged all water and any other liquids that accumulated in the silo's sump well to the surface.  Not surprisingly, the soil at each of these sump discharges was contaminated with VOCs and SVOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds and Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds) which were readily detectible over 40 years after site closure and documented in an environmental study conducted in 1999.


VOCs and SVOCs are compounds such as solvents and other chemicals which release harmful or irritating gases over time which can be detrimental to human health.  These compounds can persist in the human body for long periods of time and are demonstrated to readily infiltrate aquifers and as a result, the food supply.  Examples of these compounds are found in adhesives, paint thinner, lubricants and scores of other compounds commonly used in industry and which remain a concern of health and environmental agencies.


Flexible hydraulic lines (at center) and electrical lines which are encased in braided stainless steel.  The braided sheathing is most likely to provide a measure of protection chiefly from explosions, but perhaps also from heat or fire.  Most or all of the electrical lines that were not in steel conduit in this area were of this sort.


Working my way around the perimeter, I encountered a few obstacles, but mostly the going was comparatively easy next to getting up to the catwalk level in the first place.  Finally I reached the far end of the catwalk and made my way back to the elevator motor platform, all the while dreading the descent I would have to make to escape this cold war tomb.


A very large and very odd-looking section of power conduit.  I believe that this once supplied a large power run to the cribwork in the form of a flexible lanyard which could move with the structure as it was leveled and locked.  This was probably about a 4" diameter conduit.


A very heavy duty electrical junction box at the lip of the silo.  This was made of cast aluminum (I think) about 3/8" thick.  You can see more braided cable running through this box.


I knew that when I went back down I was going to be facing a couple unpleasant obstacles made all the more unpleasant by the blind fumbling I would have to do to get past them.  I rested for a bit at the edge of the silo as I planned my departure.


A rather open and dull section of the catwalk flanked by a flimsy-looking railing


After sizing up the situation, I set down my flashlight so it shone on the bolts I had hoisted myself up with earlier and very, very carefully lowered myself over the edge using the same bolts once again.  Since I could not turn around, I could not see where I was going, so I spent some incredibly tense moments as my feet fumbled about in the dark for purchase below me.


Shock and explosion-resistant lighting fixtures at the silo cap


It seemed to take forever to find the pipe below as I hung there over the void looking for a foothold, but I finally found the pipe and relaxed a bit as I released my white-knuckled grip on the bolt above.  Going down was actually much worse than going up, perhaps because I was constantly forced to look down at the 5-story drop below me.  That I often could not see where to put my feet for support did not help at all either.


Another light fixture mounted on the steel plate covered ceiling


A shot showing the damaged steel plates on the inside of the silo doors.  These were partially torn loose by drilling through the silo doors by contractors hired to take water samples from the silo.  I am not sure why the samples were not obtained by entering the site instead of going through all that trouble.


When I got to the 18" fire water conduit, I had another moment of terror as I blindly dropped over the edge, desperately searching for something to stand on below so I could give my aching arms a rest and feel secure that I was not going to fall into that dark water below.


Here you see two enormous mounting points cast of solid steel and bolted into the concrete by bolts inches thick.  Through the center of each of these masses of steel runs a bolt almost as thick as a man's arm, held from above by a nut larger than a softball.  These bolts have been cut off by the salvager's torch, but each once supported one of the four giant spring suspension assemblies that held the launcher elevator motor platform.  Two more such mounts are found in the adjacent quadrant on the opposite side of the elevator motor platform.


When I got back down to the counterweight rails, I finally started to relax a bit, feeling I had escaped death or injury this time in spite of my incredible foolishness.  I knew I had beaten this terrible obstacle and would live to talk about it.  Though its difficult to understand without being there, take my word for it, it was exciting to say the least.


Once back in the personnel tunnel, I marveled at my being alive and swore to myself never to be so damn stupid and reckless ever again.  I departed joyful and exhilarated at having cheated or escaped death,  (or perhaps I was simply overlooked?) I made my way out through the rusty throat of the Titan and headed home, certain I would never repeat such an insane act.


Clearly I must have a poor memory-- before long I would find myself in a similar yet even more precarious situation.  Some people just never learn...


Another view of the silo cap ceiling and the elevator motor platform spring assembly mounts.  You can see more explosion-resistant wiring entering a junction box nearby.


In the next section: twice the insanity, twice the idiocy.  Yes, its the climb to the top of Silo #1.  Click below to witness the craziness.



Missile Silos Part V


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