Surrounded by water, but with nowhere to go, no way to escape, Sailors on USS Forrestal (CVA 59) watched in horror for one split second as flames began to engulf their ship, July 29, 1967. They jumped into action, but then came explosion after explosion, fireball after fireball.
Caused by unstable, outdated ammunition; high op-tempo; a power surge; human error - a host of reasons - the fire that would claim some 134 lives on USS Forrestal was a tragedy of errors, mistakes that likely could have been individually prevented, but when added together made disaster seem almost inevitable, at least through the 20-20 goggles of hindsight.
"It was a nightmare of bad things that could happen," said Lt. Jonathan Davis, officer in charge of the Farrier Firefighting School in Norfolk, Virginia.
A Series of Mistakes
The day before the fire, Forrestal, then in the Gulf of Tonkin, had been resupplied with ordnance. The bombing mission over Vietnam had recently intensified, and U.S. forces simply didn't have enough modern, thick-cased, 1,000-pound bombs to go around. Instead, the war's commanders turned to 1,000 pounders that dated from the Korean War. The shells were in terrible condition, with some leaking at the seams.
Forrestal ordnance handlers and commanders reluctantly accepted the shipment, ultimately deciding to store the ammunition on the deck, away from the rest of the air wing's ordnance.
At 10:50 the next day, an unguided Zuni rocket accidently fired. A "pig tail" had been inserted on an aircraft too early, creating an electrical connection between the rocket and the plane's engine. The Zuni flew across the deck, into the fuel tank of a Skyhawk, already loaded and ready for second mission of the day.
This not only started a rapidly spreading fire, but dislodged two of the 1,000-pound bombs from the Skyhawk. They landed in a pool of burning fuel between the plane and a second aircraft, one Lt. Cmdr. John McCain had been preparing for the upcoming strike.
"I shut down the engine on my airplane, felt the shock, saw the fire, jumped out by going down the refueling probe ... and rolled through the fire and went across the other side of the flight deck," now-Senator McCain recalled in an oral history. "I saw the pilot in the plane next to mine jump out of his airplane, only he didn't jump as far and when he rolled out, he was on fire."
Now-retired Capt. C. Flack Logan had been in another aircraft on the deck. "I used the four-letter 'F' word and said, 'let's get out of this airplane,' he remembered. Then a lieutenant, Logan ran in the direction of the fire hoses, meeting up with Repair 8, which was racing toward the fire. The damage control team (DCT) stopped and looked up.
"I turned around," Logan remembered. "If you've never seen a [jet fuel] fire, it bubbles. It goes up in big swirls. ... It's very frightening to see. Fireballs just went up in the air. I turned around and looked and said, 'No wonder they stopped.'"
The firefighters were clearly apprehensive, he said, but also determined, ready to do their duty. As Sailors pushed whatever ammunition they could off the deck and into the sea, Repair 8 rushed past Logan and attacked the growing blaze with foam. The team's leader, Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) Gerald Farrier, immediately began spraying the now-smoldering bombs.
He was too late. The two shells exploded, wiping out most of Repair 8.
"I think I was about 150 feet away ... and when Chief Farrier explodes, he's sort of vaporized, and I'm knocked back maybe 15 feet," said Logan, who sustained some minor shrapnel wounds. "There were a couple of guys with me. I know one of them made it, and I never saw the other guy again. I suspect he did not live. . . . I looked at my hands and I had two hands and I looked at my feet and I had two feet, and I used both of those and got off the flight deck."
It had been less than a minute and a half since the first spark caught.
Nearby, other airplanes burned and more bombs exploded. A second DCT was all but eliminated as well, leaving other, poorly trained Sailors to continue to fight the blaze. They were brave, witnesses said, but not terribly efficient. Foam teams sprayed protective barriers that were quickly washed away by water teams, for example.
They didn't know any better, remembered Logan, who went on to help with firefighting efforts in the ship's island. It was a fire; the instinct was to use water, to do something - anything that might stop flames.
"It didn't help that the damage was located a little bit aft of midpoint and then everybody just started fighting from all directions," Davis explained. "It's kind of hard to set up for success in fighting a fire on topside when you can't really set up optimal conditions for everybody. Attacking a fire from two directions is good, unless you're pushing it at each other."
Within about five minutes, the ship was rocked with a total of nine explosions. Burning jet fuel fell into the decks below, including a number of berths where the night crew was sleeping. Logan tried yelling, "Get up! Get up!" outside the sleeping quarters, but no one came. He hoped they had already escaped. Some had. Many were already dead.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Thomas LaGinja had been lying on his rack a level below topside, near the Forrestal's fantail, when he heard shouts of fire, followed by running footsteps, then a call to general quarters (GQ).
"Then, I think, I heard the bomb go off under John McCain's plane," he remembered in an oral history. "My location was just maybe 20 feet behind where his airplane was and a few feet below, but separated by about four inches of steel. I must have heard that bomb go off because something caused me to rush to the starboard side without putting any clothing on, said LaGinja. “Behind me, the ship is ablaze and there's no way to get out that way. There's this flash up above me and a tremendously loud pop. ... There was debris all around me. There was a fire in the direction I had been headed. ... I was just hoping it wouldn't be a slow death."
The passageway was so dark and smoky that LaGinja, who had somehow lost his glasses in the confusion, couldn't see. He followed one of the shapes that stumbled through the p-way in front of him, finally putting his hand on a shipmate's shoulder and following along, hoping to make it to his GQ station. They reached a cooler compartment, one that was still sheltered from the fire, and then heard more explosions.
LaGinja thought, "well, the wisest thing to do is get below." He descended four decks. As he passed a DCT, "these guys that were on the hoses looked at me strangely, like they'd seen a ghost. ... The head of the damage control party took me by the arm and was leading me forward, and he was shouting, 'Gangway! Injured man!'"
LaGinja didn't realize it, hadn't felt any pain, but he was covered in blood. Shrapnel peppered his body, except the area around his eyes, which had been protected by his glasses. Corpsmen cleaned him up, tweezing out bits of glass and metal. They released him to a scene of destruction the next day, to a ship of gaping holes, burned out airplane skeletons and severed body parts.
He was one of the lucky ones. Fires raged for almost a day. Forrestal's sick bay had been overwhelmed with mass casualties. More than 130 of his shipmates were dead, including the Sailor in the berth above LaGinja's. LaGinja later found a severed hand as he searched for his belongings. He never knew if it belonged to his bunkmate or some other unfortunate soul.
In many cases, Logan said, there wasn't much left to find, and what remains hadn't been incinerated were often unrecognizable.
"I ended up bringing out remains with this other petty officer first class and we'd give them to the corpsman," he said. "We'd be going through holes in the flight deck that the bombs had blown up. Once we brought up what I thought was a couple of bodies and he said it was actually three. These were not whole bodies. These were just parts of people. ... When you get such high temperatures, there ain't going to be anything recognizable. It was a difficult thing to do, but ... you do what you can with what you've got. Is that something anybody wants to do? No. But it's something somebody has to do."
Today, Logan still wishes he had been better prepared to respond to an emergency aboard ship. And while the Navy's official investigation into the fire didn't fault any one person, it did find that a number of mistakes had been made. The Navy learned from it. So did Logan.
Today, Davis explained, every Sailor goes through firefighting training at a schoolhouse named for the valiant Chief Farrier, not only once, but multiple times, every five years as long as they remain assigned to sea duty. Damage control training is a daily activity on every ship. Ordnance isn't stored on aircraft. Aircraft aren't left fueled and ready to go on the flight deck for extended periods.
"You've got to get ahead of the game," Logan said, "to learn how to fight fires or how to do medical emergencies - you don't want to learn that on the job. You want to practice all of the possible scenarios. You're not going to get them all, but training will kick in when you do it."
It's certainly a lesson he carried with him as he went on to become a commanding officer. He made sure everyone who worked for him underwent fire training. He ordered everyone to carry flashlights at all times, and he outfitted his ship with arrows and signs and emergency directions a foot from the ground. That's because in a fire, you're usually down on your hands and knees, trying to crawl below the smoke. You might not be able to see eye-level exit signs.
"I had some people question 'Hey, why are you doing that?' And I said, 'because it's my ship and I believe that's important,'" he said. "You learn from your mistakes. ... We had put things in the way, impediments to our Sailors being able to live. You don't ever want to have that on your record. You want to make sure you've done everything you can to take care of your Sailors and be able to fight the ship."
His hard work paid off. Logan was the skipper of USS Lexington (CVT 16) in 1989 when a brand-new pilot attempting his first carrier landing crashed into the ship. Although four Sailors and one civilian contractor died, the crew responded instantly, saving the ship from a Forrestal-like catastrophe.
“Training kicked in. I could see the kids on the flight deck running away initially ... but as soon as they realized the airplane had crashed, they ran right to the firefighting equipment ... and they fought the fire and took care of it like it was supposed to be done,” said Capt. C. Flack Logan. “My officer of the deck ... turned the ship to make sure the wind was blowing over the side. ... Although it was a terrible disaster that cost us the lives of [five] people, it did not go further than that."
The most important thing for Sailors to remember, Logan said, is that "when something like this happens to you, you cannot depend on the captain of the ship. ... When a ship blows up or a bomb comes in, you have to have a plan for yourself, to take care of yourself. ... It's an individual who decides whether you're going to stick around and do the best you can or whether you're going to try to go hide and run away."
This article appears courtesy of the U.S. Navy’s All Hands Online and may be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.