Man who averted war
WHEN alarms began to ring and lights on a control panel flashed in front of Stanislav Petrov, a 44-yearold lieutenant colonel seated in a secret bunker south of Moscow, it appeared that the world was less than 30 minutes from nuclear war.
“The siren howled,” he said later, “but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it.” His chair, he said, began to feel like “a hot frying pan.”
Petrov, an official with Russia’s early-warning missile system, was charged with determining whether the US had opened intercontinental fire on the Soviet Union. Just after midnight on September 26, 1983, all signs seemed to point to “yes”.
The satellite signal Petrov received in his bunker indicated that a single Minuteman missile had been launched and was headed towards the East. Four more appeared to follow, according to satellite signals, and the protocol was clear: notify Soviet Air Defence headquarters in time for the general staff to consult Yuri Andropov, the Soviet leader. A nuclear holocaust would probably ensue.
Yet Petrov, juggling a phone in one hand and an intercom in the other, judged that the red alert was a false alarm. Soviet missiles, armed and ready, remained in their silos. And American missiles, apparently minutes from impact, seemed to vanish into the air.
“I had a funny feeling in my gut,” Petrov said in 1999. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision and that was it.”
While the “50-50” decision may have averted catastrophe, it ultimately destroyed the career of Petrov, who died on May 19 at his home in Fryazino. He was 77. – Washington Post