Wednesday afternoon, June 20 1990 started much like any other day. It ended entirely different.
(Author’s note: Please indulge me on this Veteran’s Day, while I tell my own story of heroism, and one very close to my heart. I apologize in advance for any errors, omissions or typos)
I was assigned to the evening shift 7pm-7am of my Radar shop on the USS Midway (CV-41), a nearly 50 year old WWII era Aircraft Carrier and flag-ship of the 7th fleet in the far east, thus I had recently retired to my berthing in a style of bunk we sailors called “coffin lockers” due to the way they were enclosed on all but one side, with a small curtain for privacy.
I found it hard to fall asleep whenever we set out, and this was only my second time at sea. Not only was I still trying to get used to the vampire shift but there were flight operations in progress, which put planes that successfully “trapped” on the ship directly over my head on the angled portion of the flight-deck. Just a few feet above my head was the center-line at the end of the landing strip, and they came to a stop on the roof directly above our berthing with engines at full throttle in in case of a missed attempt.
Normally when a plane lands successfully all you really hear is the muffled whine of the twin jet engines on an F/A-18 Hornet or A-6 Intruder, perhaps the distinctive bark of turbo-props reversing thrust direction on an E-2C Hawkeye. For the most part these sounds were fairly soothing to a gearhead like myself, and the gentle rocking of the ship helped put you to sleep once you got used to the blood slowly rushing into and out of your head.
On occasion however, a plane would “bolter” or miss catching the arresting wire and it was a different story entirely as a 100 pound steel “tail-hook” dragged across our roof at over 120 miles per hour, followed by the business end of the jet at full power, blasting by just feet above where we slept.
On my very first day at sea a few months earlier I had just fallen asleep when a pilot boltered and the ensuing racket scared the living bejeezus out of me.
The next thing I knew I was standing in the isle of our dimly lit berthing, a dark red cast by overhead “sleeping” lights. My heart pounding and startled to death, ”What the @#$%& was THAT?!?!?” I yelled in a stupor…
Several older shipmates laughed at the boot-camp, and said “You’ll get used to it kid” then went back to sleep. Thus I began to filter out the sounds of an aircraft carrier at sea, still not quite sure what was normal and what was not as I learned to sleep directly under an airport.
This time at sea I had gotten used to it. And I was incredibly excited, because we were enroute to my very first scheduled liberty port in Pusan Korea. I had been stationed in Japan for quite a few months, but caught the ship at the end of a deployment and just missed out on an entire West-Pac cruise. And a few months earlier we had sailed to the working port of Subic Bay – Philippines, only to have the gate suddenly closed during a coup attempt. Trapped on base, the legendary liberty stories of my dreams were so close, yet so far.
Thus the upcoming visit to Korea was something I had looked forward to for a long time.
A day or two earlier we had done some workup exercises, including a few high-speed runs. Our radar system had a direct feed from the ships gyro and navigation systems, so I got to see just how fast one of these machines can actually go, and it was surprising (although I am still not at liberty to say what that speed was). The old girl had some spunk left in her.
But the strain of pushing this old warrior to her limit would weigh heavy on our minds for what was about to happen next.
I went to bed after having stayed up the night before in hopes I would fall asleep during the day, which was pretty customary for the night shift, and I fell into a deep deep sleep, much more so than I expected. And this time I had some of the strangest dreams, all consisting of the ship being in a state of emergency – catching fire, blowing up or sinking.
When my alarm finally went off I woke up bewildered, exhausted and in a state of confusion.
The first thing I noticed was that the white lights were on in our berthing and it was dead quiet. No snoring, no milling about and joking, no one sitting around listening to their walkmans or reading. No one was in the head brushing their teeth or showering. Deserted.
I got dressed and ready for my shift, then made my way to evening muster and wondered why every watertight door on the way was shut and dogged. And still the ship was deserted. I was becoming genuinely freaked out.
When I walked into my shop everyone was there and staring at me like they had seen a ghost. Then I noticed they were in what we called a modified General Quarters, or GQ, state of emergency. Somehow, because I was new, I had been missed at roll-call for the emergency muster.
And the ship, was on fire.
-At 11:47 am local time while we sailed in the sea of Japan, there was a report of smoke in a storage room for the Flying Squad of DC division, our shipboard firefighters and a squad was dispatched to investigate. At 12:23 there was an explosion, and around this time general quarters was sounded. (I was asleep, not sure when it rang).
-Exactly 1 hour later at 1:23 a second larger explosion rocked the ship.
The fire was almost directly below our berthing, and that entire portion of the ship was evacuated, including our berthing. One of our first class petty officers had come through to wake us up, turned on the lights and yelled to get up and get out immediately, report to our GQ stations.
Somehow I was missed, and in my exhaustion from having stayed up so long in an effort to fall asleep, I spent the next few hours dreaming about the ship being on fire instead.
Then I showed up for muster that evening, and we all realized… this was soooo not good.
The source of the fire, which I am recanting from a somewhat faded memory and not from an official source, I believe was found to be a jet-fuel pipe that had developed a leak, as did a nearby steam-pipe. Most steam-pipes on a ship are capable of tremendous pressures and temperatures, and when the two mixed in this space it set up a mixture that would prove to be a fatal time-bomb. There was suspicion the leaks may likely have been related to the stresses from the high-speed runs we did just before.
When the ship’s elite fire fighting team known as the Flying squad opened the hatch to investigate, the super-heated fuel/steam mixture combined with in-rushing oxygen and exploded, killing several of the first responders.
Rescue teams and more firefighters were dispatched, and eventually they were able to bring the fire under control. But an official total of 18 shipmates were injured- some critically, and 3 perished, including DC3 Shane Kilgore, MSSN Patrick Johnson, and HTFN Jeffery Vierra.
They risked their lives to save ours, and for that I am forever grateful to the USS Midway Flying Squad. Most especially because my life inadvertently hung in the balance as well.
But there is more to my story.
When I found out who the casualties were, one name stuck out at me. In my entire naval career I rarely knew anyone who had even heard of my home town, let alone actually been there. Thus I came to tell people I was from the Tahoe area, somewhere between Truckee California and Sacramento. It was always a treat when someone knew of Nevada City, which had been a town in the California gold-rush country long before a certain large state stole the same name.
HTFN Vierra, Hull-technician Fireman Jeffery Vierra – was also from Nevada City. The two of us had no idea each other were on the same ship. Jeff went to school with my sisters and I. And he died barely dozens of feet below where my shipmates and I slept, on a WWII era warship stationed half way around the globe from our home.
It was an incredible and tragic coincidence.
I ran across a youtube video a few days ago that brought the whole ordeal rushing back to me… I have never forgotten the sacrifice they gave for us, and on this Veteran’s day please indulge me as I give a special thanks to my shipmate from my old home town who gave so much, as did those who perished with him, and tried to save them.
Fair winds and following seas shipmates, we owe you a debt we can never repay, and one I will never, ever forget.
(CNN video of the disaster, with a young Wolf Blitzer – Kinda annoying with his commentary, but still relevant. It was after all an old ship, and things can and do happen on ANY ship. You train, and deal with it when it happens)