Wednesday afternoon, June 20 1990 started much like any other day. It ended entirely different.
(Author’s note: Please indulge me, 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 in my Radar shop on the USS Midway, thus had 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.
It was hard to fall asleep as this was only my second time at sea. Not only was I trying to get used to the vampire shift but there were flight operations in progress, which put planes that successfully “trapped” directly over my head on the angled portion of the flight-deck. A few feet above my head was the center-line at the end of the landing area, and they came to a stop above our berthing with engines at full throttle in in case of a missed landing.
Normally when a plane lands 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, and the gentle rocking of the ship helped put you to sleep once you got used to the blood rushing into and out of your head.
On occasion a plane would miss catching the wire however, and it was an entirely different story as a 100 pound steel hook dragged across the roof at over 120 miles per hour, followed by the business end of the jets at full power blasting by just feet above. My very first day at sea I had just fallen asleep when a pilot “boltered” (missed the wire) and the ensuing racket scared the living bejeezus out of me.
The next thing I knew I was standing in the isle of our berthing, dimly lit by red overhead “sleeping” lights with my heart pounding startled to death. “What the @#$%& was THAT?!?!?” I cried…
Several older shipmates laughed at the boot-camp, and went back to sleep. “You’ll get used to it kid”. Thus I began to filter out the sounds of an aircraft carrier at sea, still not sure what was normal and what was not as I learned to sleep under an airport.
I was incredibly excited, because we were enroute to our very first 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 the 1989 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. As our radar system had a direct feed from the ships gyro and navigation systems, I got to see just how fast one of these machines can go, and it was surprising (although I am still not at liberty to say).
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, and I fell into a deep deep sleep, more so than I expected. And this time I had the strangest dreams, all consisting of the ship in a state of emergency – catching fire, blowing up or sinking. When my alarm finally went off I woke up bewildered and in a state of confusion.
The first thing I noticed was the white berthing lights were on and it was dead quiet. No snoring, no milling about and joking, no one 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 still the ship was deserted. I was becoming genuinely freaked out.
When I walked into my shop everyone was there staring at me like they had seen a ghost. And then I noticed they were in what we called a modified general quarters, or 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 directly below our berthing, and that portion of the ship was evacuated, including the berthing. One of our first class petty officers came 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 spent the next few hours dreaming about the ship being on fire.
Then I showed up for muster that evening, and we all realized… this was 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 what would prove to be a fatal time-bomb.
When the Flying squad opened the hatch to investigate, the supper-heated fuel/steam mixed with the in-rushing oxygen and exploded, killing several of the first responders.
Rescue teams and 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 heard of my home town, let alone actually been there, thus I came to tell people I was from the Tahoe area, 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 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 sister, a mere 2 years behind me. He died barely dozens of feet below where my shipmates and I slept, on a WWII era warship half way around the globe from home.
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, I owe you a debt I can never repay, and will never, ever forget.
(CNN video of the disaster, with a young Wolf Blitzer – Kinda makes me mad with his “embarrassing” remarks. It was an old ship, and things can happen on ANY ship. You train to deal with when it happens)