Witness to History: USS Forrestal Fire

Story Number: NNS020801-14Release Date: 8/1/2002 11:13:00 AM
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From Lt. Cmdr. Mary Jenkins, Medical Service Corps, Naval Dental Center Camp Pendleton

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (NNS) -- Capt. Samuel Mowad, Dental Corps, is retired now, a successful career as a Navy dentist in his wake. Yet the memories of what happened to him and his ship more than 35 years ago is still something he talks about, with the hope that sharing his experiences will help prepare others.

Mowad was a young lieutenant aboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CV 59) on July 29, 1967, when a stray Zuni rocket from an F-4 Phantom, triggered by stray voltage, set off a chain of events that left 134 dead and more than 300 injured.

The deadly chain reaction began when the rocket hit a parked and armed A-4 Skyhawk (piloted by a young Lt. John S. McCain), rupturing its fuel tanks and feeding fires that enveloped planes parked on deck. The impact also sent a 1,000-pound bomb into the fire, which "cooked off" and killed the flight deck chief and the first wave of trained fire fighters.

More explosions followed, engulfing half the airwing's aircraft and blowing holes into the steel flight deck. Fuel and broken and burning aircraft fell through the holes, spreading the fire deep into the ship. The crew heroically fought the fire, rushing to dump armed bombs and aircraft over the side.

It took an hour for the flight deck fire to come under control. Other fires raged throughout the day and into the night. The crew -- most untrained in fire fighting and damage control -- saved the ship and hundreds of lives by sheer courage and force of will.

As the fires died, Mowad's job, and those of his Navy Medicine comrades, was just beginning. He and his dental technicians triaged and treated the dying and wounded; in one 20-minute period, he personally performed two life-saving emergency tracheotomies and a leg amputation.

Mowad continued to serve the deceased by transferring to the hospital ship USS Repose (AH 16) for four days to help identify the dead.

Since World War II, no U.S. ship has lost more Sailors than Forrestal; no ship has withstood the pounding it survived that day.

Forrestal would spend more than seven months in the yards undergoing repairs, and would serve for another 26 years.

For more Navy Medicine news, go to www.news.navy.mil/local/mednews.

Editor's note: Capt. Mowad shared his story with the 1st Dental Battalion and the Naval Dental Center Camp Pendleton on July 29, 2002, 35 years to the day after the Forrestal fire.

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