Atom Bomb Fragments
Florence, South Carolina
In 1958 an atom bomb accidentally fell and exploded -- non-atomically -- in the hamlet of Mars Bluff, about seven miles east of Florence, South Carolina. Jagged shards of steel were scattered hundreds of yards around a big crater in the back yard of Walter Gregg, a railroad conductor. Kids grabbed the pieces as souvenirs, but the Air Force demanded that they be returned, and they were.
Most of them, anyway.
Years after the bombing, South Carolina Senator Nick Ziegler somehow acquired four chunks of the bomb and donated them to the Florence Museum of Art, Science, and History. They're still there, centerpiece of a small exhibit on one of the biggest "whoops!" of the Atomic Age.
Pieces of an atom bomb that exploded are rare, something that you probably won't see anywhere else, for reasons that become obvious with a moment's thought.
The four fragments are in a wall-mounted plexiglass box. It serves as a dust shield, not a radiation barrier (the shards aren't radioactive). In front of the box is a yellowed front page of the Florence Morning News ("Atom Bomb Without Warhead Drops In Mars Bluff Section"). An aerial photo taken after the explosion shows the crater and the ruined Gregg house, which was trashed by the shock wave and a subsequent fallout of muddy debris.
The Florence Museum of Art, Science, and History is a serious institution, in an old Art-Moderne mansion, with limited space. The shards have to vie for the visitor's attention with a World War I stove and an exhibit about big Florence employers such as FedEx and Monster.com. A small bomb hangs from the ceiling, but it's a sand bomb of the type once used in the area by the military for target practice (The bomb that blew up in Mars Bluff was the size of a car).
Museum director Andrew Stout told us that the museum is known for its collection of works from Harlem Renaissance artist William H. Johnson, and a painting of Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion crossing the Pee Dee River -- and the bomb shards. Johnson and Marion were South Carolina natives, with a loyal local following. The shards were outsiders who burst in unexpectedly, but Florence has accepted them as one of their own.