On Sept. 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov had overnight command of the top-secret Serpukhov-15 bunker where the Soviet military monitored early warning systems for a nuclear strike.
An alarm sounded, The Washington Post reported in 1999. Satellites reported an inbound U.S. nuclear missile. Then another. And another. Five missiles in all.
It was Petrov’s job to alert his superiors for an immediate nuclear counter strike.
“All I had to do was reach for the phone,” Petrov told BBC News in 2013. “But I couldn’t move.”
Distant early warning
Both the United States and Soviet Union maintained early warning networks during the Cold War to try to detect incoming nuclear missiles in time to launch their own counter strikes.
It was all part of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction — deterring the enemy from attacking by the promise of nuclear annihilation in return, according to Brittanica.com.
Early warning systems used — and still use — radar, satellites, computers and sophisticated communications to try to detect and react to possible nuclear launches.
The distant early warning line, for example, covered the Arctic with radar installations tuned to pick up nuclear missiles launched at the U.S. over the North Pole, CBC News reported.
(The name also inspired the title of a song on the 1984 Rush album “Grace Under Pressure.”)
The network, now largely obsolete, has been replaced by the North Warning System.
But despite all the high technology involved, the systems weren’t foolproof.
‘The siren howled’
In fall 1983, tensions between the United States and Soviet Union were high. In September, a USSR fighter jet shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 after it entered Soviet airspace.
All 269 passengers and crew aboard died, including 63 Americans — among them U.S. Rep. Larry McDonald, D-Ga., the Associated Press reported.
Next to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, it may have been one of the most frightening periods of the Cold War, CNN reported.
And now Petrov had a warning of an incoming U.S. nuclear strike on his monitor.
But he couldn’t make sense of the alert. Why would the U.S. initiate a nuclear war with only five missiles? It would be suicide.
“The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it,” Petrov told BBC News.
On Oct. 5, 1960, radar equipment in Thule, Greenland, reported an incoming large-scale Soviet nuclear strike, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported in 2015.
Except a nuclear attack on the United States didn’t make much sense with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in New York for a visit to the United Nations.
The “attack” turned out to be the moon rise, which created radar reflections mistaken for a sky filled with missiles, the union said. And it was far from the last such error.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, a Soviet submarine forced to dive by U.S. vessels blockading the island almost launched a nuclear torpedo after the captain became convinced war had broken out, PBS reported.
But another officer, one of three aboard who had to agree, refused to authorize the launch, which would almost certainly have destroyed a U.S. aircraft carrier..
And in 1979, computer errors at several U.S. military headquarters warned that 2,200 Soviet ballistic missiles were inbound and due to strike within minutes, The National Security Archive reported.
The U.S. prepared its nuclear bombers for launch before radar and satellite reports confirmed the supposed “strike” was a false alarm. Other glitches caused three more in the weeks to come.
‘On a hot frying pan’
Now, on the other side of the world, Petrov faced a similar dilemma.
“I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan,” Petrov told BBC News. He was certain that if he notified his superiors of an incoming strike “nobody would have said a word against it.”
As Petrov tried to juggle phones, intercoms and flashing electronic maps and consoles, another officer shouted at him to remain calm and do his job, he told The Washington Post.
And then the 44-year-old lieutenant colonel made his decision. He would not notify his superiors of what seemed to him to be a false report.
“I had a funny feeling in my gut,” Petrov told The Washington Post. “When people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles.”
Even so, it wasn’t until after the supposed missiles would have hit, about 23 minutes later, that Petrov was able to relax.
More nuclear mistakes
In November 1983, just a few months later, NATO launched Operation Able Archer, a huge training exercise in Europe that included simulating preparations for nuclear attacks to halt a Soviet invasion, Smithsonian Magazine reported.
But Soviet leaders feared the exercise was actually a ruse for a real U.S. nuclear attack. Nuclear-capable aircraft were fueled and armed, ready to launch, on Soviet runways.
Soviet forces stood down after the exercise ended uneventfully, Smithsonian Magazine said.
NATO didn’t find out how close Able Archer had come to triggering an all-out nuclear war for years.
Even after the demise of the USSR, Russia went on high alert in 1995 when radar detected the launch of what turned out to be a Norwegian rocket studying the Northern Lights, Frontline said.
Petrov, who retired from the military to a suburb outside Moscow, where he died in 2017, never got much attention for his role in averting a possible nuclear war, National Public Radio said.
Within the Soviet military, he was first praised for his actions, then repeatedly interrogated, The Washington Post said.
He eventually received an official reprimand, not for failing to report the alert, but for errors in the logbook, BBC News reported.
An investigation later traced the false alarm to a satellite that “picked up the sun’s reflection off the tops of clouds and mistook it for a missile launch,” The Washington Post reported.
Thirty years later, Petrov told BBC News he was still convinced that any of his fellow officers would have reported the false alarm as a U.S. attack had they been on duty.
Petrov said he didn’t think of himself as a hero, though.
“That was my job,” Petrov told BBC News. “But they were lucky it was me on shift that night.”