Archive Page - 08/16/13 40 years, 2,169 covers and 54,876 stories from PEOPLE magazine's history for you to enjoy
- How Did Faye Grant React to Stephen Collins's Interview on 20/20?
- The Style Top 5: The Best Star Style From the PEOPLE Magazine Awards
- Stacy Keibler: How I've Completely Bounced Back After Baby in 4 Months
- Surprise! Madonna Releases New Music from Upcoming Album Rebel Heart
- Meet Santa's Squad of Celebrity Reindeer
On Newsstands Now
- Matthew McConaughey: In His Own Words
- Jessa Duggar's Wedding Album
- Brittany Maynard's Final Days
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine
People Top 5
LAST UPDATE: Saturday December 20, 2014 02:10PM EST
PEOPLE Top 5 are the most-viewed stories on the site over the past three days, updated every 60 minutes
- June 14, 1999
- Vol. 51
- No. 22
For One Terrifying Moment in 1983, Soviet Missile Monitor Stanislav Petrov Held the World's Fate in His Hands
Thus began the hour in which a military pilot's son from the Ukraine saved the world from a nuclear holocaust. Petrov, now 59, retired and living modestly outside Moscow with his unemployed son, kept silent about the incident for years. Only in the past six months have his actions become widely known in the West. "I don't feel I did anything heroic," Petrov says. "I did my duty defending the motherland. That was my job."
No sooner had the missile warning appeared than a siren blared and his computer displayed the word START, signaling that an intercontinental missile from a U.S. base was headed toward the Soviet Union. "For the first few moments I sat stunned," says Petrov, whose role was to evaluate the situation and alert his superiors. "In theory I knew what to do, but I just couldn't think what order I should do it in."
The stakes could not have been higher. Launching a counterattack would surely have led to a devastating nuclear exchange between the superpowers, wiping out millions of people. "I had to use my knowledge and keep a clear head," he says. "But I tell you this: My little hands were trembling! I'm only human."
Listening to reports from his staff over an intercom with one ear and a telephone with the other, he noticed something amiss: Though the computer receiving signals from satellites was warning of a missile, ground-based radar installations were showing no sign of attack. In less than three minutes, he concluded it was a false alarm. "It was partly a gut feeling that no one could really want to start another world war," he says, "and also that they wouldn't start it with a single missile." Then, horrifyingly, the siren sounded anew, and he received alerts of four more missile launches. But Petrov held off from confirming an attack, fearing that to do so would trigger a counterattack. "That would be the end—too terrible to imagine," he says. "I didn't want to be responsible for that."
Finally, noting that almost all the equipment showed no sign of trouble, he concluded that the alarm was false. He phoned a top military chief but found him very drunk. "To put it bluntly," says Petrov, "he obviously didn't take in a word of what I was saying." Within four hours, a military investigative team arrived from Moscow, sealing off the facility and interrogating the staff for three straight days. The investigation found that sunlight reflecting off clouds had thrown off the detection system, but his superiors, embarrassed, never publicly recognized Petrov's critical act of restraint.
Suffering from stress, he left the army a year later, ending a military career of 27 years. As a boy, in Kotovsk, near Odessa, he had longed to become a military pilot like his father. But his mother persuaded him to study radio technology instead, and he joined the army at 18. While posted in the distant Russian Far East province of Kamchatka, he met his wife, Raisa, a cinema projectionist. He joined a satellite-monitoring team in 1972.
After his military service he moved his family (including daughter Yelena, now 32, and son Dmitri, 29) to Fryazina, outside Moscow, where he worked for a satellite-system maker. (Raisa died of a brain disease in 1997.) Though recent publicity about the incident—which U.S. nuclear-security experts confirm very likely happened as he says—has brought fan letters from around the globe, Petrov, now living in relative anonymity in a run-down three-room apartment, shuns the attention. "Well, look at me," he says. "Do I look like a hero?"
Juliet Butler in Fryazina and Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C.
- Juliet Butler,
- Macon Morehouse.
Treat Yourself! 4 Preview Issues
The most buzzed about stars this minute!