A retired Navy pilot chronicles the deadly 1966 fire aboard an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam that, though forgotten today, remains a powerful case study of heroism and senseless tragedy.
During a routine stowing of aircraft flares, one sailor tossed a heavy, cylindrical flare to another. Its lanyard caught on something and pulled the pin. In seconds, the sailor who caught it knew that the flare would burst into an intensely hot, magnesium-fueled fire capable of turning night into day. Instead of dropping it or throwing it overboard, he made the worst possible decision: he threw it into the flare locker, where it ignited 640 others. Within minutes, an uncontrollable fire engulfed the forward end of the carrier, killing 44 crewmen. Foster, who served on the Oriskany, describes precisely how the fire spread, how its victims died, and how the remaining crew mobilized and fought the blaze. Having interviewed almost everyone involved, the author includes many stories of heroism, miraculous escapes, and tragic failures. After the fire came the inevitable investigation, which took a month, filled 11 volumes, and blamed the accident on lax supervision and unsafe working conditions, singling out a half-dozen crewmembers. In the end, almost everyone got off lightly. The sailors who started the blaze received mild punishment, and all court-martials resulted in acquittals. However, following Navy tradition, the carrier’s captain bore ultimate responsibility, and his career was ruined. Foster describes in minuscule detail the daily routine, operation, emergency procedures, and chain of command on an aircraft carrier. There may be more than a general reader wants to know, but the incident provides plenty of excitement, and Foster writes well enough to make it worth the effort.
An obvious labor of love and the definitive study of a catastrophic shipboard accident.