By Thomas Fields-Meyer
June 14, 1999 12:00 PM

It was the fall of 1983, just weeks after the Soviet Union had shot down Korean Air Flight 007, killing all 269 aboard, and Cold War tensions were running high. Stanislav Petrov, then 44 and a Soviet army lieutenant colonel, was in his 10th year as commander of a team monitoring surveillance satellites. Just after midnight on Sept. 24, as Petrov sipped tea 55 miles from Moscow in a bunker at a secret military installation called Serpukhov-15, a warning panel flashed a message: MISSILE ATTACK.

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?”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Juliet Butler in Fryazina and Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C.