“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.”
Stanislav Petrov was in his 26th year in the army in 1983. Located in a secret bunker where the Soviet Union monitored its early-warning satellites, lieutenant colonel Petrov was looking at a screen telling him the United States had just launched a missile intended for the Soviet Union.
His job was to report the launch to his superiors, who would pass word along to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov and the general staff for the final word on launching a retaliatory attack. And at such a heighted point of the Cold War—Korean Air Lines Flight 007 had been downed by Soviet pilots a few weeks earlier—a counter-attack would almost certainly have come.
After a target was identified, it had to pass 28 checkpoints before the alarm sounded. It passed them all and the computer was certain: It displayed its highest level of confidence in the launch alert. “I had all the data,” Petrov said, “If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it.” He was still skeptical, however, and told his superiors at the army headquarters that the system had malfunctioned. If he was wrong, a nuclear explosion would inform them within minutes.
“A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from LAUNCH to MISSILE STRIKE.”
Growing up, young Stanislav was persuaded by his mother to study radio technology rather than follow his father as a pilot in the military. He did, but his struggling parents still pushed him to join the army, which he did at 18. He was assigned to a post 4,000 miles from his hometown.
Trained as a military engineer, Petrov was assigned to the early-warning satellite monitoring team upon its inception in 1972. The system was brand new and still “raw,” says Petrov, who was the only officer on his team to have received an education before joining the army. A few years of school might not seem like much, but according to Petrov, who was covering for a sick fellow-officer on the night of September 26, things would have ended differently. “My colleagues were all professional soldiers, they were taught to give and obey orders.”
Not that it was easy for Petrov to make the call. His staff of 120 men awaited his orders while, as the Washington Post described the scene, “…electronic maps and consoles were flashing as he held a phone in one hand and juggled an intercom in the other, trying to take in all the information at once. Another officer at the early-warning facility was shouting into the phone to him to remain calm and do his job.”
“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike. But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time… All I had to do was to reach for the phone… but I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.”
There were still unanswered questions. Ground units under direction of a different command center had not seen the missiles, as they should have. Nor did the attack make tactical sense to Petrov, “When people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles.” He later said the odds were 50-50, but once again reported to his superiors a false alarm. “I had to use my knowledge and keep a clear head. But I tell you this: My little hands were trembling! I’m only human.”
“Twenty-three minutes later I realized that nothing had happened. If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief.”
Having just avoided nuclear war, Petrov was praised for his quick thinking. But after an investigation was launched a few days later he was questioned more thoroughly and blamed for not having properly recorded all of the events as they unfolded. “I had a phone in one hand and the intercom in the other, and I don’t have a third hand,” he told them. Ultimately the ordeal was treated with indifference and details were classified for a decade.
A rare alignment of the sun, the US missile fields, and the satellite, caused light reflecting off high-altitude clouds at a precise angle to trigger the false alarm. Having only been in use for a year, such an alignment was extremely unlikely.
Though he did not receive major demerit for the incident, neither Petrov nor anyone working during the incident was honored in an official capacity. The stress of the situation led to his retirement from the military a year later. Petrov was embarrassed that the system had failed the way that it did and did not discuss the incident until it was declassified in the early 1990s.
He moved, with his wife and two children, to the town of Fryazino. He worked for a satellite-system manufacturer before retiring to care for his wife Raisa, who died of a brain disease in 1997. He still lives there, on his army pension, in a three-room apartment.
“I don’t feel I did anything heroic. I did my duty defending the motherland. That was my job.”