By lex, on May 24th, 2008
One of the things you learn early in the Navy is that fires are fought where you find them – there’s no running away on a ship at sea. They can run the gamut from mundane – a cigarette butt in a trash can – to the catastrophic: The fire aboard the USS Forrestal in 1967 ** cost us the lives of 134 sailors and gave rise to a training video that every sailor has seen. The thing that always amazed me was the reaction of the topside sailors after the first bomb cooked off – they ran away from the hellish conflagration first before realizing that there was nowhere to go. And then they ran back into the flames. Which is really, really hard to do.
In 2002, I was serving aboard the USS Constellation when a fire broke out in one of the main machinery room spaces. A technician performing routine maintenance on a fuel oil valve failed to ensure that it had been depressurized before breaking a seal, and atomized fuel oil filled a hot space. He escaped before the fire broke out, but two sailors were trapped in a control room whose only exit gave out onto the fire itself. There was only so much oxygen in the space, and hundreds of crewman from the flying squad and back-up damage control parties braved withering heat to stand in the door and beat the fire back. Five minutes was all the hose crews could stand before wilting from heat exhaustion, only to be relieved, recover, and step back into the breach. Because there were guys inside. Because we had to save the ship.
I stood on a darkened bridge listening to the sailors in the control room, listening to the voices of the damage control teams on the hydra. We recovered them safely at last, there were only minor injuries among the fire crews. A good night, all things considered, and the ship steamed westwards still, towards a rendezvous with destiny.
Times change, but the physics do not – on Thursday, the USS George Washington successfully beat back a fire that broke out in the aux spaces and threatened the ship. Hat’s off to those who stood in the door.
** 08-21-2018 Original link gone; replacement found – Ed.