Fighting fire on the sea

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 3, 2003

This week a lot of the attention was placed, and rightly so, on the incredible life led by Bob Hope. I can remember in 1982 when he entertained at the Naval Academy during entertainment week. What a show! He had Brooke Shields and James Coburn with him. It was impressive as heck. Bob Hope was a real friend of the military and he will be missed.

This week also marked a huge tragedy at sea, one which occurred over 35 years ago and remains as one of the greatest lessons learned regarding at-sea firefighting. It is an event that every recreational boater can look to and learn from. It was an event that underscores how serious a fire at sea is. The date that I am speaking about is July 29, back in 1967: the day fire erupted onboard the USS Forrestal.

It started at about 10:50 a.m. by an accidentally launched airplane mounted ZUNI missile. The Forrestal, which was on patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin, suffered a series of huge explosions that wiped out crew members instantly, including most of the ship’s fire fighters who were specially trained to handle an event like this including the combination of jet fuel and high explosives.

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The cascade of explosions was caused by the initial ZUNI striking the fuel compartment on a A-4D &uot;Skyhawk&uot; aircraft. As soon as the missile hit, JP-5 (aircraft fuel) dumped on to the deck spreading the fire quickly. Despite the calm seas the remaining crew members struggled to contain the fire as it moved at breakneck speed, both above and below decks where some of the ship’s berthing (sleeping) compartments were located.

According to the Forrestal Museum ( web site &uot;Berthing spaces immediately below the flight deck became death traps for fifty men, while other crewmen were blown overboard by the explosion.&uot;

The response from the other ships in company such as USS GEORGE K. MACKENZIE, USS RUPERTUS and USS BON HOMME RICHARD was impressive. For example the destroyers, MACKENZIE and RUPERTUS maneuvered close enough to get water from their fire teams assisting with containing the blaze. Think about it: they were able to maneuver very close. According to the office Navy Chief of Information history, the two destroyer commanding officers, &uot;maneuvered their ships to within 20 feet of the carrier so fire hoses could be effectively used.&uot;

What key lessons could a recreational boater learn from this event? First, any fire at sea is a serious event. A recreational boater needs to look at the four classes of fire that exist and how they might ignite on their vessel.

Second, a recreational boater needs to look at backup systems. If the primary means of fighting is not available, there needs to be backup.

Let’s talk about communications. Lessons learned from this event proved how critical it was that communications be available. Injured were quickly moved via the Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) aircraft to the other carriers. Fire fighting support with the other vessels was easily communicated. However, how will communicate if your electrical system starts the fire and is inoperable?

Finally, lessons were learned about compartments and people getting caught in compartments without escape. Depending upon the size of your vessel, especially if there are multiple compartments, you and your passengers need to look at methods to escape. It is that simple.

Until next week, if you have a minute remember the brave souls who gave the ultimate sacrifice onboard Forrestal and remember to Boat Safe…and Boat Smart!

LCDR Joe DiRenzo is a resident of Suffolk and a regular News-Herald columnist.