FIRE ON THE FLIGHT DECK
On a sunny afternoon in October, 1989, I was serving my third underway period aboard my first ship, the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, operating in the Gulf of Mexico and our mission was to conduct flight operations. The Lexington was the first ship that student Naval Aviators landed on to obtain their carrier qualifications and their inexperience usually provided for some tense moments during landings, especially if being observed by the crew topside, watching the spectacle of these pilots trying to safely land a plane onto a ship that was not only moving forward, but whose deck was rising and falling in rhythm with the sea.
I was working in my assigned space, the forward most part of the ship, the forecastle. The forecastle contained the massive anchor chains, their black links weighing two hundred fifty pounds apiece, stretched across the deck and disappearing to the outside of the hull where thirty ton anchors hung at their ends. The chains wrapped around the wildcats, gear type devices that hoisted and lowered the anchors, measuring four feet in diameter with solid brass tops that we kept polished to a mirrored shine. Everywhere else, all that could be seen was the Navy’s choice of ship color, “haze gray,” with the only contrast being the black non-skid strips on the deck and the white waterline painted on the bulkheads. I was grinding and prepping the deck for priming and painting–a mundane yet required job. Others were around as well, fellow shipmates painting or cleaning and several sailors from the catapults division, whose machinery was located in our space. I remember how much I enjoyed being at sea, the smell of the salt air in my nose and the taste of it on my lips. A constant breeze rushed through the portholes as the ship maintained speed to produce enough wind lift to support the launching and landing of aircraft. The ever present and not so pleasant odor of jet fuel and hydraulic fluids filled the air, and the odor of scorched paint and steel emanated from the orange sparks of my grinder.
As we went about our work, keeping a three football fields length ship maintained and operating efficiently at sea, a call came over the ship’s public address (PA) system…”fire on the flight deck!” Fires aboard a ship at sea are not that uncommon and the entire crew trains and retrains to effectively fight them and keep the ship operational. A fire on a ship is the most dreaded emergency, though, because there is no place to run to or get away from it. The crew either gets it under control, or the ship goes down. When I heard the announcement, I assumed it was probably some spilled jet fuel that ignited on the hot deck, or possibly raw fuel had flashed inside a plane’s exhaust. We got back to work, enjoying the sea breeze but not exactly enjoying the work. Fifteen minutes or so had passed since the “fire on the flight deck” call had gone out, and I was confident the flight deck personnel and crash crews had gotten everything under control. At that moment, the ship’s PA system came to life with electronic tones, a dinging sound that sounded steadily one after the other: ding…ding…ding…ding…ding went on for about ten seconds, and before the verbal announcement even came, we knew the tones meant “general quarters.” General quarters is a call on naval vessels to man battle stations and/or damage control stations. The announcement came, and I headed to my post, a damage control station in the hangar bay.
The scene would have seemed chaotic to the untrained eye, people rushing around, some barking out orders and instructions, and others dragging fire hoses across the deck. The intense smell of jet fuel, more pungent than usual, and smoke filled the air. I knew this was not another training drill like we had rehearsed so many times before. We went about our assigned duties and prepared for our next orders, as word was getting around that this was more than just a “common” fire on the flight deck. My station leader finally gave us an update as to what had happened. He advised that a T-2 Buckeye jet, the first jet that student Naval Aviators fly, had crashed on the flight deck while attempting to land. The pilot and at least four of the ship’s crew were dead, and an unknown number were possibly injured. The fire from the crash had caused the plane’s fuel to ignite and the burning fuel had flowed into the catapult tracks, causing the grease in them to catch fire. The ship was in a serious state of distress, and if the fires were not brought under control, the situation could have gone from bad to “we’re fucked” in a very short amount of time.
Not knowing what the scene looked like on the flight deck, we focused on our tasks at hand, charging fire hoses, donning fire fighting suits and breathing equipment, and preparing for whatever might come next. Water, fire fighting foam, and unburned jet fuel were flooding into the hangar bay from the flight deck above, and we were using push brooms to sweep the liquids, up to three inches deep in places, out the exterior doors and into the sea. We finally received word that the fires were out and any flooding from the fire fighting water was under control. My station leader appointed me and several others to report to the main elevator, the one usually used to move aircraft between the flight deck and hangar bay. We were to stand by and assist with carrying the stretchers that contained the dead and wounded when they were brought down from the flight deck.
I was nineteen years old at that time and had never seen any kind of traumatic or serious injury, other than a broken bone or a bad cut to a finger. As we waited for the elevator to come down, I didn’t know what to expect, nor could I have prepared myself for what I saw. The elevator came down with three stretchers, each of them containing the burnt bodies of our shipmates. The bodies were solid black and covered in ash. Arms and legs were sticking out in contorted and unnatural positions. Facial features were diminished to sunken-in craters, once containing the eyes, and a slight protrusion of what was left of a nose. The expressions, on what was left of their faces, were like they were frozen in time, mouths open as they must have been screaming as they burned to death. It reminded me of a documentary I had watched about the city of Pompeii being destroyed by the volcano and how the people looked that were caught in the lava flow. The worse thing, though, was the smell; a burnt body has a stench that no other smell in the world can replicate. It’s the smell of any decaying body, human or animal, but with an added “sweetness” that is immediately sickening, as though someone sprinkled an array of unknown spices on the body. The smell seems as though it will never vacate the nostrils and one that is never forgotten.
That evening, the mess deck where we ate our meals was as quiet as I had ever heard; all around were shipmates with reddened eyes and tear streaked faces. No one was talking; we really didn’t know what to say, or maybe we just knew there were no words worthy of breaking the silence. Our shipmates–our friends–had been in that same location with us earlier in the day at lunch. They were refilling their drinks, choosing a dessert, or razzing someone about the upcoming evening basketball game in the hangar bay. Just when the silence seemed to be bearing down on us all, the PA crackled and the Captain came on and tried to put some words together for the crew. He started by saying that the Lexington and her crew had suffered a terrible tragedy and loss, and that some of our shipmates were no longer with us. But, his voice started to break, and he couldn’t continue through his tears.
That sunny afternoon in October, 1989 changed my life. The people we lost were not just crewmembers; they were our shipmates and our family at sea. I got a reality check and matured a great deal that day. I realized that graduating from high school the year before, thinking I knew it all, and I was ready to face the world, meant nothing. I was suddenly faced with the realization that this was the real world, or at least the world I had chosen when I enlisted, and it was one in which we could be put in harm’s way at any moment and any one of us could be gone in the blink of an eye. The events of that fateful day not only changed my attitude towards my naval service, but my service to my country as well, and I gained a new appreciation for the phrase, “Freedom Is Not Free”.