On This Day

U.S.S. Forrestal, u.s.s. forrestal fire, u.s.s. forrestal john mccain
Associated Press

On This Day: Fire Kills 134 Aboard the USS Forrestal

July 29, 2011 06:00 AM
by Cara McDonough
On July 29, 1967, a fire broke out on the aircraft carrier as crewmen prepared to launch jets during the Vietnam War; 134 people died and 62 were injured.

Fire Aboard “Supercarrier” Kills 134

Built in 1954, the 1,000-foot-long, 80,000-ton USS Forrestal was the first of the “supercarriers.” Having already served several tours of duty, the ship left Norfolk, Va., in June 1967, headed for Vietnam.

On the morning of July 29, the crew (which included future presidential candidate John McCain) prepared to perform the second launch in their fifth day of combat in the Gulf of Tonkin. But at about 10:50 a.m., a small rocket struck the Forrestal, dislodging a fuel tank. Suddenly, two A-4 planes went up in flames.

Time magazine described the scene: “Fanned by 35-mile-an-hour gusts, fireballs leaped to other fully loaded planes, trapping the pilots inside. … Engulfed by flames and smoke, crewmen and pilots tossed rubber rafts overboard, then plunged 90 feet into the waters below.”

As fire reached the ammunition and bombs aboard the ship, crewmen rushed to avoid an even more serious explosion by throwing heavy bombs over the deck, some of them dying in the process. But the growing fire soon engulfed the ship. Nearby ships rushed to help but the fire took 12 hours to contain, killing 134 people and injuring 62.

Lt. David Clement later described the ship as “a mass of twisted steel, with holes in the flight deck, a vacant space where there had been many aircraft and a towering column of black and gray smoke and flames.”

Accident Review and Fire Safety Recommendations

Following the fire, the badly damaged Forrestal made its way to the Philippines, and then home to Norfolk, arriving on Sept. 14. The Aircraft Carrier Safety Review Panel convened on Aug. 15 to examine the problem of fires aboard ships and released its findings on Oct. 18.

Recommendations to avoid future catastrophes included development of a remote-control fire-fighting system for the flight deck, improvements in survival equipment and increased training in fire survival.

Historical Context: The Vietnam War

According to the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission, the United States had the world’s most powerful air force as it entered the Vietnam War, thanks, in part, to airline carriers like the USS Forrestal.

“But unlike past wars when the enemy was clearly defined, the nature of this war was much murkier and there was hesitation to use airpower to ‘bomb them back into the Stone Age’ as one general irresponsibly recommended,” it says.

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