March 19, 1981: 5 Suffocate and 2 Die in Columbia Space Shuttle Testing Accident




WHAT HAPPENED? (1)


Though the Columbia space shuttle is most known for its February 1, 2003 disintegration while re-entering Earth, killing all on board, many do not know that 2 people lost their lives to the Columbia more than 20 years prior.


On March 19, 1981, while setting up a ground test for the space shuttle Columbia, 5 technicians asphyxiated, and 2 of them died. Their names were John Bjornstad and Forrest Cole. Bjornstad died on the way to the hospital, and Cole died 2 weeks after the accident.


The crew asphyxiated during a nitrogen purge of the orbiter, a routine procedure that used nitrogen to flush the oxygen out of the engine prior to test-firing. The counted down and the technicians were cleared by NASA safety supervisors to enter the safety compartment, and so they did, believing it to be safe. The 5 men who went inside lost consciousness before anyone realized anything was askew, given that nitrogen is odorless and colorless.


A sixth technician discovered them and alerted a guard who put on an air pack to drag the victims out of the compartment. The responding ambulance was stopped and searched for several minutes near the launch pad perimeter at Kennedy Space Center, which delayed rescue efforts.


A 3-month investigation ensued, and it was determined that a last-minute change in testing procedures, and a breakdown of communication, was the cause of the accident. Their deaths were the first for the U.S. space program since 1967, when 3 astronauts were killed when fire swept through their capsule during Apollo mission testing.

PREPARING THE PERFECT STORM (2)


Nicholas Mullon, a "child of the space age", stood at Launch Complex 39A awaiting Columbia's final Countdown Demonstration Test on March 19, 1981. His father worked for Boeing during the 60s, and Mullin grew up around astronauts and other space workers, and dreamed of getting the opportunity to contribute to space one day.


He followed in his father's path, landing a job after high school and a stint in the army at Rockwell International as a space shuttle program technician.


The launch had been delayed nearly 2 years, and he and his fellow technicians were filled with excitement as they awaited the shuttle's final milestone before flight.


We are going to get into some mechanical space shuttle stuff here, folks. I am reading what a far smarter person wrote, so please, if you are an astronaut or space technician, please understand I am merely doing my best.


So, the shuttle's external tank held millions pounds of super-cooled liquid hydrogen and oxygen. (Not an exaggeration, literally millions.) In a successful launch, thousands of those pounds would pour through the main engines as the countdown approached 0. The engines would then ignite and run for a few seconds while still bolted to the pad. If any of the engines were not functioning correctly, the launch sequencing computer would shutdown prior to liftoff, and the launch would abort. But, in such a case, the hydrogen and oxygen would remain hovering around the pad, and would pose a fire risk.


So, to mitigate that risk, gaseous nitrogen, an inert gas, would be pumped through the areas prior to the end of countdown. So during ascent, the nitrogen would vent out of the pressurized areas, and if the launch was aborted, launch controllers would purge the nitrogen from the orbiter with breathable air, allowing the workers to safely enter to inspect the shuttle.


Make sense? No, not really? Well in a sentence: In order to not catch on fire in an aborted flight situation, there is nitrogen somewhere that is supposed to help. I think that is all you need to know.


A month before the final test for the Columbia shuttle, the 3 main engines were tested in a 20-second, full throttle burn while still on the launch pad. It went perfectly, and the nitrogen purge was executed as planned. There was a note of elevated nitrogen during tests of the crew compartment atmosphere, and a leak was suspected. Though not thought to be hazardous, test teams deviated from normal procedure for the March test. The plan was this: Even though the engines would not fire, or even be fueled for that matter, they would plan for a longer nitrogen purge to give engineers more time to assess if there was a leak.


Nitrogen was not considered dangerous, especially given all of the other dangerous liquids and gasses on the shuttle, the change was not marked as hazardous. Safety committees typically review all changes before being implemented, but for the March 19 test, over 500 deviations were ordered, so they only reviewed "hazardous" ones. The longer nitrogen purge was included in Deviation 13-20, and was approved, but not fully reviewed. And due to a failure in communication, the additional time needed was not included in the new timeline.


So now you are seeing the problem. The test controllers would be conducting a longer nitrogen purge, but the workers down on the ground did not know of this timeline switch.

THE ACCIDENT


By 8:50 AM, the test had finished, and the astronauts had left the orbiter. A pad clear announcement was given, and workers were to return to their tasks. Typically, at this point, the nitrogen purge would have ended, and safe, breathable air would be in the shuttle. But it had not. And nobody on the ground knew it.


So shortly after 9 AM, Nick Mullon went to the launch pad to resume his work in the compartment. Ahead of him were fellow technicians John Bjornstad, Forrest Cole and William Wolford. They all went inside, and the curtain shut behind them.


Nearly 80% of the air we breathe is nitrogen, but the remaining 20%, oxygen, is extremely important. The CO2 buildup is what triggers our need to inhale. But when you breathe pure nitrogen, no CO2 is released, and thus, victims do not know that they are suffocating, until it is too late. And they lose consciousness.


Forrest Cole and Bill Wolford crawled through the entrance of the compartment they were working on, and found Bjornstad lying on his back unconscious. They tried to help, yanking his hand and yelling out of the door, but they lost consciousness, passing out on top of Bjornstad's body. They had only been inside the shuttle for a minute.


Rockwell quality inspector Jimmy Harper got into the work station at 9:20 and found the pile up of bodies, but before he could help, he became dizzy and collapsed, falling backwards through the door and onto the metal grating below.


Mullon and others headed toward the same area, unaware that now 4 men were passed out in the compartment. He saw Harper fall onto the platform, and the other men passed out atop one another. He rushed to help, yelling for assistance and attempting to drag them out. He went back and forth, dragging the unconscious men from the compartment to safety. Another man, Corbitt, arrived and they went back and forth trying to rescue the men. But Mullon couldn't take it any longer, and he collapsed, falling unconscious on the platform outside.


Help was on the way, but Bjornstad and Mullon were still unconscious. And unbeknownst to anyone, as he was more hidden than the other men, Forrest Cole remained trapped.


The engineer controlling the nitrogen purge asked for permission to immediately end the purge and switch back to breathe air. He did not get a response for over a minute, and once he did, it still took another 90 seconds for air to begin flowing.


Harper, who had been pulled out minutes ago, was stable, so he and another man, Tucker, grabbed a breathing unit and raced back to find Corbitt struggling to save Mullon and Bjornstad. They were able to lift them up the 4-foot ladder to the ramp, away from danger. Tucker looked for more victims, and in the fog of his face mask, he was not able to see Cole's body deeper inside the shuttle.


It wasn't until 9:23 that a fire chief at the pad, responding to the calls, headed inside to look for more victims, where he found Cole passed out under cables and popes. He was unable to pull him free on his own, and was assisted by another fireman. It was 9:28 by the time he got out, meaning he was without oxygen for 12 minutes. Mullon, Bjornstad and Cole were all unconscious, fighting for their lives.


A call was made for every available ambulance to come immediately, but due to lack of communication and lack of clarity around the situation, the Security Control officer ordered guards not to allow any emergency vehicle that did not have proper emergency breathing apparatus, believing there may have been an ammonia leak. A security agent at the pad saw the ambulance being held up, and radioed in demanding they let the ambulance through, but no luck. He ran to his car and raced to the security stand to explain in purpose. Finally, the ambulances made it, despite an unneeded and possibly fatal delay.


Mullon regained consciousness at the pad, but Bjornstad and Cole did not. The other 2 men were administered oxygen, but were okay, but rushed to the on-site medical facility. The 2 who had not woken back up were airlifted to area hospitals... But it was too late. John Bjornstad died en route to the hospital, and Forrest Cole died 2 weeks later on April 1, without ever regaining consciousness.

AFTERMATH


Nicholas Mullon, along with the other men who risked their lives to pull their fellow engineers to safety, did so with selflessness. He did not know what happened to them, and given all of the gasses that were on the shuttle, it could have easily been a death sentence, but he saw people in need of help and plunged right in. But unfortunately, the event changed him, and he was never the same.


Though he seemed physical the same when he returned, he was never the laughing, space-loving husband and father he was when he left for work that day. He experienced sleep disorders, anxiety and memory problems. He got PTSD and would leave his bed at night to hide from the nightmares. He was unable to return to work, and Rockwell and NASA offered no financial assistance, and they were told not to talk about the event with anyone, especially the press. He did get workers compensation for a fraction of his original salary. The Mullon's filed a lawsuit for his severe brain damage and other psychological disorders. His lawyer remembers that Mullon would often be driving, and just couldn't remember how to get home. He would have to call his wife to get him home.


William Wolford, one of the men Mullon saved, filed his own lawsuit. While being rushed to the hospital with blood coming out of his nose and ears, his toe was tagged, being declared dead when he was not. He was released, but he suffered non-stop severe migraines for over 3 years. He also experienced extreme back pain, as metal pins put in from a previous surgery were dislodged during his rescue.


According to Wolford's wife, Susan, NASA or Rockwell never said anything about it. She was left to get updates from the news.


Both cases settled out of court, and after attorney fees, debts, and workers-comp reimbursement, the Mullons received less than $60,000 and the Wolfords received a similar amount.


Nicholas Mullon lived for another years, but his health and mental state deteriorated the entire time. Beyond the damage his brain suffered, he also had intense survivor's guilt. His physical condition worsened, and he began having trouble breathing. In April 1995, 14 years after the injuries he suffered took place, he died. He missed his son's graduation from high school by a few weeks.


Now, the Space Walk of Fame Museum pays tribute to the event, with John Bjornstad, Forrest Cole and Nicholas Mullon's names across the top, to show appreciation for the men and women who died so we could explore space.


The more stories I read and learn about, the more I realize how big of a killer miscommunication is. This was an avoidable tragedy. Even after everyone was aware of issue, it was avoidably slow to get a rescue crew together. 2 men lost their lives, and 2 others were immensely altered, because of a failure to communicate. That is terribly sad to think about.


The final sentence in the article I used to cite the majority of this is beautiful, and I will leave you with it, too: "The memorial stands in tribute to those men and women who also made the ultimate sacrifice to explore the heavens, and reminds us that not every hero wears a pressure suit."

REFERENCES:

1. https://www.wired.com/2009/03/march-19-1981-shuttle-columbias-first-fatalities/

2. https://www.baen.com/columbia


[A massive shoutout to Terry Burlison for reference #2, and if you want this story but better, read it. There are pictures! There is not a lot of information on this accident, and his story made this one possible, so thank you!]

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