U.S. Navy Sailor Retracts Heroic Claim About Rescuing Two Children

Machinist's Mate 2nd Class Nathaniel Atkins aboard USS Ford, March 28 (USN)

Published Jul 8, 2020 2:07 PM by The Maritime Executive

A U.S. Navy sailor is under internal investigation after claiming that he rescued two children from a burning building, then retracting his story when confronted by fire and rescue officials. 

Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Nathaniel Atkins, a member of the carrier USS Gerald R. Ford’s engineering department, was off the vessel on liberty on June 24. He told Navy press officers that he was driving back from an errand when he saw a duplex apartment on fire. 

“The only thing I saw was a house fire and there were probably 15, maybe 20 people standing outside,” said Atkins. “I stopped, rolled down the window and yelled ‘is everybody out of the house.’ And they're like, no, there are kids inside."

According to Atkins' initial statement, his Navy training in emergency response kicked in. 

“Initially I went up to try to and assess the situation, to determine what the easiest way in was,” said Atkins. “It was a four-apartment duplex and the main entrance that goes upstairs where the kids were, was on fire. I couldn't get through it. I saw the two children in a bedroom window in the back half of the house on the second story and went to find a ladder.”

He said that he got a ladder, climbed up to the window, broke it and removed the two children. He claimed that he saw an elderly woman inside the house but was not able to rescue her. 

“There was so much chaos in the very beginning, nobody was taking control. I just leapt into action and did what I needed to do. I don't really know how to feel about it, it's a lot of mixed emotions. I have a feeling of guilt, just because of the grandmother and that situation, but to be honest, I did everything I could. I think that I did a good job, I have a feeling that I've accomplished something," he said. 

However, the Portsmouth Fire Department had a different version of events. According to an incident report seen first by Navy Times, the actual rescuer was Lt. William Hatfield, a local firefighter. The fire battalion asked Atkins to come into the office for questioning, and he recanted his story, battalion chief Justin R. Arnold told Navy Times. 

The U.S. Navy published a retraction of its initial story about the fire on July 7. "Since originally posting this story, the Navy has learned that the initial facts as reported are in question. USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) is conducting an investigation into Petty Officer Nathaniel Atkins’ role in a Portsmouth fire on June 24, and his subsequent statements given in a press interview and with ship representatives," USS Ford's public affairs office said.