Early in the morning of September 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov helped prevent the outbreak of nuclear war.
A 44-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Soviet air defense forces, he was hours past his shift as a duty officer at Serpukhov-15, the secret command center outside Moscow where the military Soviet was monitoring its early warning satellites over the United States when the alarms went off.
Computers warned that five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched from a US base.
“For 15 seconds we were in shock,” he called back later. “We needed to figure out, ‘What happens next?’ ”
The alarm bells sounded during one of the most tense periods of the Cold War. Three weeks earlier, the Soviets had shot down a Korean Air Lines commercial flight after crossing Soviet airspace, killing all 269 people on board, including a Georgia congressman. President Ronald Reagan had rejected calls for an arms race freeze, saying the Soviet Union “evil empire.” The Soviet leader, Yuri V. Andropovwas obsessed with fear of an American attack.
Colonel Petrov was at a turning point in the decision-making chain. His superiors at the warning system headquarters reported to the Soviet Army General Staff, which would consult Mr. Andropov about launching a retaliatory attack.
After five harrowing minutes – electronic boards and screens flashed as he held a phone in one hand and an intercom in the other, trying to absorb the incoming streams of information – Colonel Petrov decided that reports of launch were probably a false alarm.
As he later explained, it was a knee-jerk decision, a ’50-50′ guess at best, based on his mistrust of the early warning system and the relative scarcity of missiles that were launched. .
Colonel Petrov died at the age of 77 on May 19 in Friazino, a suburb of Moscow, where he lived alone with a pension. The death was not widely reported at the time.