Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Recent Death of Senator John McCain Recalls the USS Forrestal Fire, Navy Efforts at Safety Aboard Warships


            The media is full of news accounts right now of the death (Aug. 25, 2018) of Arizona Senator John McCain, a dynamic figure and a hero of the Vietnam War. McCain’s death brought to this writer’s mind the 1967 fire aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Forrestal (named for the first Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, a heroic figure in his own right), a disaster in which 134 officers and sailors died, with McCain, then a young naval aviator, barely escaping death.

            An account of the fire and its aftermath can be found in the top-notch Sailors to the End (Perennial 2002), a book at once riveting and educational, by author Gregory A. Freeman.  I have recommended this book in the past to colleagues in the workers' compensation and industrial safety fields.

            Freeman explains how the Forrestal was, on July 29, 1967, preparing to launch attacks into North Vietnam when one of its jets accidentally fired a rocket into an aircraft occupied by McCain, its pilot. A huge fire ensued, and McCain barely escaped before a 1000-pound bomb on his plane exploded, causing a chain reaction with other bombs on nearby aircraft. The crew struggled for days to extinguish the fires but, in the end, the tragedy took the lives of 134 men.

            This writer has been told by navy officer colleagues that the Forrestal fire is a subject of study by new naval officers as shipboard safety consciousness is considered.

            And, indeed, according to one new internet account, the fire “was taken as a teachable moment for the Navy, demonstrating how much care has to be exercised to prevent such a catastrophe and what damage control training was required to be able to defeat the flames and explosions when everything goes wrong.”

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