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Friday, July 28, 2006

The Forrestal Fire, July 29, 1967

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Today in 1967, the USS Forrestal became the victim of the worst US naval accident since the Second World War. This day would forever change the way the US Navy trains its sailors for the most dreaded thing a crew can encounter: a fire at sea.

Forrestal had only been on station for four days off the coast of North Vietnam. A war was raging in the divided nation, and the carrier had already launched 150 missions against North Vietnamese targets. On the morning of the 29th, a group of aircraft were being armed and fueled for another mission. Many of the aircraft carried what are called iron bombs: unguided, free-falling bombs not unlike those used during World War Two. Because of a shortage of new weapons, older Composition B bombs were being used. Composition B, which is a mixture of RDX and TNT, tends to be more sensitive to heat and handling than its newer cousins. This sensitivity would be demonstrated in unbelievable ways over the course of the day.

Due to an electrical surge, an unguided Zuni rocket accidently fired from underneath the wing of an F-4 Phantom parked on the flight deck. The rocket hit an A-4 attack aircraft that was getting ready to launch. The plane's drop tank took a direct hit, spraying fuel on the deck, nearby aircraft and sailors. The highly flammable liquid burst into flames from the heat of the rocket explosion and quickly engulfed the A-4 and several other planes. The pilot of the A-4, a quick-thinking Lieutenant Commander named John McCain, got out of the aircraft by walking down its slanted nose and jumping to the deck from the plane's refueling probe. 90 seconds later, the Composition B bomb attached to the underbelly of the A-4 exploded, causing a major fire and resulting in secondary explosions as ordinance from other aircraft began to cook off. Half of the carrier's aircraft were engulfed in flames.

Huge holes in the flight deck allowed burning fuel to run down into the ship, spreading the fire quickly. Men became trapped in some of the smaller spaces when fire blocked their escape path. 50 men died below decks. Many more would die on the flight deck or in the ocean when explosions knocked them overboard.

Other ships in the task force, including the carrier USS Oriskany, moved into position in order to help fight the fire. Destroyers came in close and sprayed water directly on the flames. The crew of the Forrestal fought hard to save their ship; some men heaved hot, armed bombs off the flight deck and into the sea. Afterward, a story was told about a young, 150lb Lieutenant who manhandled a 250lb weapon to the edge of the flight deck by himself.

Within an hour of the first explosion, the fire on the flight deck was under control. Below decks, firefighting teams worked well into the night and the next morning to put out all the secondary fires. When a head count was finally made, it was discovered that 132 crewmen were dead, 64 were wounded and two were missing and presumed dead. Not since the bombing of the USS Franklin during the last year of World War Two had a US Navy ship suffered a worse loss of life.

The ship proceeded to the Philippines for temporary repairs. A week later, she proceeded to Norfolk, Virginia where her upper five decks and several hundred feet of her flight deck were rebuilt. The Forrestal was ready for duty by April, 1968, but never served off the coast of Vietnam again. She remained in naval service until her decommissioning in 1993 and today serves as a museum ship at the Naval Station in Newport, Rhode Island.

To this day, all sailors attending US Navy boot camp watch a documentary about the fire onboard the Forrestal and are taught about the lessons learned on that tragic day 39 years ago.

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