Lt. Col. Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov was at the controls of an early warning system in a Moscow bunker on the night of Sept. 26, 1983 — when the facility sounded two alarms that indicated the United States had fired nuclear missiles toward the Soviet Union.
The first alert indicated one missile had been fired, and the second showed four more were on the way. Petrov correctly deduced that the warnings were computer errors.
A couple of factors tipped Petrov off to the errors. For one, the Soviet military had been trained to expect a full-blown attack by the United States, not just a few missiles. The system was also new, and Petrov said he did not trust it yet.
The high tensions between the two countries created obvious pressure for Petrov. His ultimate decision to dismiss the warnings has been hailed as a move that potentially saved the world from what could have been an all-out nuclear war.
It was later learned that the warnings were set off by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds, which reflected into a Soviet satellite.
The incident remained a secret for 15 years until it was declassified in 1998.
Petrov initially received a reprimand for failing to sufficiently document the incident, but he was eventually awarded the Dresden Peace Prize in 2013 — and a documentary with Kevin Costner detailed the event the following year.
Petrov actually died May 19, but his went largely unrecognized until Monday.
When speaking about the story, Petrov didn’t consider himself a hero.
“I never thought of myself as one,” he said. “After all, I was literally just doing my job.”