The Soviet Union never figured out how to make accurate targeting systems for their ICBMs, so they compensated with two things: making bigger warheads and putting more of them in each missile.
While the American Minuteman missiles carried a single warhead with a 350-kiloton yield, the Soviet (now Russian) SS-18 Satan rocket could carry ten, each with a 750-kiloton yield.
The Russians also knew that America’s missile defense system was vastly superior to their own, so in addition to sending more warheads at a target, they also sent more missiles. As a result, important strategic targets in the US might be targeted with as many as four or five Russian ICBMS—up to 50 warheads—with a total destructive power of more than 37 megatons, or 2500 times the explosive power of Hiroshima.
San Diego, California was one of those strategic targets. As the homeport of the Pacific Fleet, the Russians launched four ICBMs at it. Two were intercepted in flight. But two survived.
Of the twenty warheads in the remaining two missiles, five “fizzled”—they partially detonated in the low kiloton range or didn’t detonate at all. That’s because the fissible material in a warhead needs to be upgraded every four years due to radioactive decay, and this type of maintenance was not a high priority for the Russians.
That left fifteen warheads, which rained down on the San Diego area, striking as far north as Del Mar and as far south as Tijuana. One detonated as an airburst sixty miles out to sea and did very little damage, while another detonated in the water five miles from Imperial Beach.
Marco Espineda was on his sailboat when that warhead hit the water. A big container ship, stacked high with cargo, was between Marco and the bay. He had just turned his head away when the warhead struck—if he hadn’t, he would have been blinded. Suddenly bleached in light, Marco turned around to see an inverted cascade of water, two miles wide, rising out of the water. It completely dwarfed the container ship, which now appeared tiny, like a toy boat at the foot of Niagara Falls. The huge torrent of water was mesmerizingly beautiful. As the water began to fall to earth it made beautiful shingles of white and blue, like the scales of a huge monster roused from the deep.
Marco watched in awe as the incredible heat consumed the container ship. All the paint on the containers was cooked off in a rising puff of technocolor smoke, then evaporated. Next, the shockwave hit the ship with 180 tons of force, ripping the hull open, knocking it onto its side and spilling the rectangular containers into the sea. A fraction of a second later Marco was vaporized as his body reached 270,000 degrees centigrade.
The mushroom cloud rose rapidly, pushing away the other clouds or merging with them. Up and up and up it went. Higher and higher. Mile after mile. Until it was as high as an airliner.