of Nuclear Weapons
A near disaster
The Washington Post, by David Hoffman (extracts)
Wednesday, February 10, 1999
MOSCOW — It was just past midnight as Stanislav Petrov settled into the commander's
chair inside the secret bunker at Serpukhov-
Then the alarms went off. On the panel in front him was a red pulsating button. One word flashed: "Start."
It was Sept. 26, 1983, and Petrov was playing a principal role in one of the most harrowing incidents of the nuclear age, a false alarm signaling a U.S. missile attack.
Although virtually unknown to the West at the time, the false alarm at the closed military facility south of Moscow came during one of the most tense periods of the Cold War.
As Petrov described it in an interview, one of the Soviet satellites sent a signal to the bunker that a nuclear missile attack was underway. The warning system's computer, weighing the signal against static, concluded that a missile had been launched from a base in the United States.
Despite the electronic evidence, Petrov decided -
On the night of the crisis, Petrov had little time to think. When the alarms went off "for 15 seconds, we were in a state of shock. We hadto understand, what's next?"
Usually, Petrov said, one report of a lone rocket launch did not immediately go up
the chain to the general staff and the electronic command system there, known as
Krokus. But in this case, the reports of a missile salvo were coming so quickly that
an alert had already gone to general staff head-
In the end, less than five minutes after the alert began, Petrov decided the launch
reports must be false. He recalled making the tense decision under enormous stress
"I had a funny feeling in my gut," Petrov said. "I didn't want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it."
Petrov's decision was based partly on a guess, he recalled. He had been told many
times that a nuclear attack would be massive -
Another factor, he said, was that Soviet ground-
The responsibility fell to Petrov, then a 44-
Petrov was situated at a critical point in the chain of command, overseeing a staff
that monitored incoming signals from the satellites. He reported to superiors at
Petrov's role was to evaluate the incoming data. At first, the satellite reported
that one missile had been launched -