Fire Aboard Ship:
Remembering USS Forrestal Fire, 50 Years Later
Fire! Fire! 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Caused by unstable, outdated ammunition; high op-tempo; a power surge; human error - a host of reasons - the fire that would claim some 134 lives on USS Forrestal was a tragedy of errors,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.