The United States Air Force with help from the RAF out of Oxford, England immediately started the search for the missing bombs. The wreckage from the aircraft was found in the fishing village of Palomares in the Almeria province of Andalucia, Spain. Within 24 hours two of the nuclear bombs had been found and they had exploded on impact.
Luckily only the conventional explosives on the nuclear bombs had detonated sparring the lives of the villagers. But the explosion did cause radioactive material to spread around the area. The third bomb was found intact in a riverbed.
The fourth was nowhere to be found. Airmen scoured the beach and nearby villages with Geiger counters, looking for any trace of the bomb, desperate to find it before it detonated or was discovered by the wrong people.
The only clue found to the bomb’s location was the discovery of the bomb’s parachute tail fin. This led the investigators to believe that the parachute had deployed and the wind pushed the bomb out to sea.
This was collaborated by the eyewitness account of a local fisherman named Francisco Simo Orts (later known as “Bomb Paco” or Bomb Frankie”). He told that he had seen the bomb entering the water. Orts was then hired by the Air Force to assist with tracking down the missing nuclear bomb.
Once it was clear that the bomb was somewhere in the ocean, the Air Force contacted the Navy for help. More than 2 dozen ships and submarines were set to the task of covering a large search area using Bayesian search theory to cover the areas where the bomb was most likely to be.
The missing bomb quickly became world news as the Soviets began a propaganda campaign stating the that the bomb was going to contaminate the oceans. In response, U.S. Ambassador Angier Biddle Duke went swimming in the waters at Palomares beach in order to show that there was no danger of a radioactive sea (which said nothing for the land that was covered in radioactive dust from the other two bombs).
The bomb was found on March 26 and the Navy attached a cable to bring it up from the ocean floor. However, the cable snapped and the bomb was lost again until April 2nd. Finally, on April 7th it was recovered. The next day reporters were allowed to photograph the bomb as proof that it had been recovered. This marks the first time in history that the United States had displayed one of their nuclear weapons to the public.
During this time, there was a massive cleanup of the soil and vegetation that was contaminated by the two exploded bombs. 1,400 tons of contaminated material was removed from the area. And a medical monitoring system was established for the locals in which the United States and Spain funded annual health checkups until 2010 when the United States stopped paying as the agreement had expired.
Negotiations for funding for cleanup resumed in 2015 when research found that there was still contamination in the area. Both countries sought a binding agreement for a renewed cleanup operation.