1967 USS Forrestal Fire
On July 29, 1967 fire sweeps the U.S. aircraft carrier Forrestal off the coast of North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. It was the worst U.S. naval disaster in a combat zone since World War II. The accident took the lives of 134 crewmen and injured 161 more. Of the carrier’s 80 planes, 21 were destroyed and 42 were damaged.
The Forrestal had departed Norfolk in early June 1967, setting sail around the horn of Africa and on to dock for a short while at Leyte Pier at N.A.S. Cubi Point in the Philippine Islands before sailing to “Yankee Station” in the Gulf of Tonkin. For four days in the gulf, aircraft of Attack Carrier Air Wing 17 flew about 150 missions against targets in North Vietnam. On the morning of July 29, 1967, the Forrestal was preparing an attack when a Zuni rocket from one of its own F-4 Phantom jet fighters was accidentally launched. The rocket streaked across the deck and hit a parked A-4 Skyhawk jet rupturing the fuel tank. The escaping fuel quickly caught fire and within seconds, other external fuel tanks on the aircraft overheated and ruptured, releasing more jet fuel to feed the flames, which began spreading along the flight deck. The impact of the Zuni had also dislodged two 1,000 lb bombs which lay in the pool of burning fuel between the two aircraft. The fire team’s chief, Gerald Farrier, immediately tried smothering the bombs with a PKP fire extinguisher in an effort to knock down the fuel fire long enough to allow the pilots to escape. The pilots, still strapped into their aircraft, were immediately aware that a disaster was unfolding, but only some were able to escape in time as one of the bombs exploded a mere one and a half minutes after the start of the fire.
The detonation destroyed the two original aircraft and blew a crater in the armored flight deck, spraying the deck and crew with bomb fragments and burning fuel.The on-deck firefighting contingent took the brunt of the initial blast, all were killed instantly including Gerald Farrier, with the exception of three men who were critically injured but ultimately survived. In the tightly packed formation on the deck, the two nearest A-4s (both fully fueled and bomb-laden) were heavily damaged and began to burn, causing the fire to spread and more bombs to quickly explode. Nine bomb explosions eventually occurred on the flight deck. The explosions tore large holes in the armored flight deck, causing flaming jet fuel to drain into the interior of the ship, including the living quarters directly underneath the flight deck, and the below-decks aircraft hangar.
With the trained firefighters all killed in the original blast, sailors and Marines who were untrained in firefighting fought the inferno and were able to control the flight deck fires by 1215, and continued to clear smoke and cool hot steel on the second and third levels until all fires were under control by 1342. The fire was not declared defeated until 0400 the next morning, due to additional flare-ups. Throughout the day the ship’s medical staff worked in dangerous conditions to assist their comrades. The large number of casualties quickly overwhelmed the ship’s Sick Bay staff, and the Forrestal was escorted by USS Henry W. Tucker to rendezvous with hospital ship USS Repose at 2054, allowing the crew to begin transferring the dead and wounded at 2253. The fire left 134 crewmen dead and 161 more injured. Many planes and armament were jettisoned to prevent them from catching fire or exploding. Twenty-one aircraft also sustained enough damage from fire, explosions and salt water to be stricken from naval inventory.
Even today, over fifty years later, the Navy still commonly refers to the fire aboard Forrestal and the lessons learned when teaching damage control and ammunition safety. The Navy circulated the lessons which the men of Forrestal re-learned at such cost throughout the Fleet, and the flight deck film of the flight operations, subsequently entitled Learn Or Burn, became mandatory viewing for fire fighting trainees for years. All new Navy recruits are required to view a training video titled Trial by Fire: A Carrier Fights for Life, produced from footage of the fire and damage control efforts, both successful and unsuccessful. Due to the first bomb blast which killed nearly all of the specially trained firefighters on the ship, the remaining crew, who had no formal firefighting training, were forced to improvise. On the one hand there were damage control teams spraying fire fighting foam on the deck to contain the flames, which was the correct procedure, while on the other hand crewmen on the other side of the deck sprayed sea water, washing away the foam and worsening the situation by washing burning fuel through the hole in the flight deck into the decks below. Burning fuel is not easily extinguished and can in fact be spread by water.
Today, it is said that every US Navy sailor is a firefighter first. A large portion of basic training is dedicated to firefighting and prevention tactics. Though there were many firefighting tools available on Forrestal, including the use of Oxygen Breathing Apparatus, the general crew were not trained in their use and failed to use them correctly.
In response, a “wash down” system was incorporated into all carriers, which floods the flight deck with foam or water. Many other fire safety improvements stemmed from this incident.
The Farrier Fire Fighting School Learning Site in Norfolk is named for Chief Aviation Boatswain’s Mate Gerald W. Farrier, the sailor who died in the initial explosion in an attempt to extinguish the fire with a single PKP extinguisher. Eighteen crewmen were buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Names of the dead are also listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.