USS FORRESTAL AIRCRAFT CARRIER FIRE " TRIAL BY FIRE " MOVIE 1967 (Print 2) 54884
Made in the wake of the disastrous 1967 fire aboard the USS Forrestal, TRIAL BY FIRE recounts the incident and discusses some of the mistakes made by fire fighting teams that made the situation much worse than it might have been. It also shows the numerous systemic and leadership failures that nearly resulted in loss of the carrier. The film also shows the courageous work of the carrier's crew and that of support vessels, to stop the flames and rescue the wounded, and makes clear that the Navy has every intention of changing policies and procedures to make sure that this type of incident does not occur in the future.
The background on this film is this: In July 1967, a devastating fire broke out on board the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal. An electrical anomaly had caused the discharge of a Zuni rocket on the flight deck, triggering a chain-reaction of explosions that killed 134 sailors and injured 161. At the time, Forrestal was engaged in combat operations in the Gulf of Tonkin, during the Vietnam War. The ship survived, but with damage exceeding US$72 million (equivalent to $511 million today), not including the damage to aircraft. Future United States Senator John McCain and future four-star admiral and CINCPACFLT Ronald J. Zlatoper were among the survivors.
The fire left 134 men dead and 161 more injured. Many aircraft and a large amount of ordnance 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, including seven F-4B Phantom IIs and three RA-5C Vigilantes. The fire also revealed that Forrestal required a heavy duty, armored forklift for use in the emergency jettisoning of aircraft (particularly heavier types such as the RA-5C Vigilante) as well as heavy or damaged ordnance. Sailors had been forced to manually jettison numerous 250 and 500 lb bombs by rolling them along the deck and off the side.
On 31 July, Forrestal arrived at Naval Air Station Cubi Point in the Philippines, to undertake repairs sufficient to allow the ship to return to the United States. With repairs completed, she departed on 11 August, arriving at Naval Station Mayport on 12 September to disembark the remaining aircraft and air group personnel stationed in Florida. Two days later, Forrestal finally returned to Norfolk to be welcomed home by over 3,000 family members and friends of the crew, gathered on Pier 12 and onboard Randolph, Forrestal's host ship.
The US Navy uses the Forrestal fire and the lessons learned from it when teaching damage control and ammunition safety. The flight deck film of the flight operations, entitled "Learn or Burn", became mandatory viewing for firefighting trainees. 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. 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 seawater, washing away the foam and worsening the situation by washing burning fuel through the hole in the flight deck into the decks below. The burning fuel was not easily extinguished and was spread by water. 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.
In response, a "wash down" system, which floods the flight deck with foam or water, was incorporated into all carriers, with the first being installed aboard Franklin D. Roosevelt during her 1968-69 refit. Many other fire safety improvements also stemmed from this incident.
The Farrier Fire Fighting School Learning Site in Norfolk is named after Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate Gerald W. Farrier, a sailor who died in the initial explosion in an attempt to delay the detonation of ordnance with the tool he had available to him- a single PKP extinguisher.
Eighteen crewmen were buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Names of the dead are also listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. If you are reading this today, please say a prayer for these gallant men.