An unarmed U.S. Pershing 2 nuclear missile caught fire near Heilbronn, in southwestern West Germany, on Friday during a routine training exercise, killing three American soldiers and injuring seven others, U.S. Army officials said.
“There was no explosion and no nuclear weapons were involved,” said a statement issued by the public affairs office of the Army’s 56th Artillery Brigade in Schwaebisch Gmuend.
Heilbronn is about 150 miles south of Bonn and Schwaebisch Gmuend is about 175 miles from here.
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Raymond Haddock, the brigade commander, said at a news conference Friday night in Heilbronn that the missile involved in the incident was “a Pershing 2 recently delivered from the United States.”
Haddock said the engine of the missile’s first stage caught fire without warning during a “routine exercise.” Earlier, an official U. S. Army statement said the rocket’s solid fuel propellant had caught fire after the seven-ton missile fell on the fuel container while being lifted from a shipping crate.
“This particular rocket motor had just been received and was being taken from its shipping container,” the statement said. “The operation was being supervised by a qualified field artillery captain. The crew was following authorized procedures and was properly supervised.”
Deployment of the Pershing 2s began in West Germany one year ago despite resistance of a strong anti-nuclear movement that generated one of the most tumultuous political debates in the country’s history.
A handful of anti-nuclear demonstrators still picket the gates to a Pershing 2 staging base at Mutlangen, a few miles from Schwaebisch Gmuend, and the accident could trigger an upsurge in opposition to the missiles.
According to Western military sources, exactly half the planned 108 missiles have so far been deployed. The Pershing 2s are replacing an equal number of shorter range, Pershing 1A missiles as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s response to a Soviet medium-range nuclear missile buildup in Eastern Europe during the last decade.
In the accident, five of the injured were treated for burns and released. Two remained hospitalized Friday night, one in serious condition.
In Washington early today, the Pentagon identifed the three dead as Sgt. Todd A. Zephier of Wagner, S.D.; Staff Sgt. John Everett Leach of Salem, Mo.; and Pfc. Darryl Shirley of Irving, Tex. The exact cause of their deaths was not announced.
The brigade spokesman, Maj. Michael Griffon, said there was no indication of sabotage, although the cause remained unknown.
The Army statement said the accident occurred inside the Army’s Redleg military base and that only U.S. soldiers were involved.
In Washington, White House deputy press secretary Bob Sims said President Reagan was informed of the accident “and expressed sorrow at the loss of life.”
Sims said the accident would have no impact on continued deployment of the weapons.
Apparently because of the strong political opposition to the Pershing 2 deployment, the Army statement stressed that the accident at no time posed a danger to the German civilian population.
The incident was the second mishap involving a Pershing 2. Last summer, a transporter tipped over on its side after its driver had stopped to inspect muddy road conditions.