Week of October 29
On October 26, 1966, on Yankee Station, a sailor aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CVA 34) accidentally ignited a magnesium parachute flare inside the flare locker of Hanger Bay 1, just below the flight deck. The lit flare ignited hundreds of others in the locker, creating an explosion that blew out the locker’s steel bulkhead and sprayed burning debris throughout the hanger. The fire quickly spread to nearby aircraft and munitions. The Oriskany’s fire-suppression sprinklers activated, but they had little effect on the fire, as the magnesium burned at approximately 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit.
The vessel’s crew confronted multiple problems at once. Most significant, intense heat and flames reached perilously close to the Oriskany’s load of bombs and missiles. Firefighters aboard ship worked to beat back the blaze and sprayed water over the ordnance to keep it from overheating and detonating. Other men quickly acted to jettison the vulnerable ordnance overboard. Meanwhile, the fire spread throughout much of the front section of the ship, and the thick, acrid smoke filled passages and entered the ventilation system, trapping many sailors in their bunks and staterooms and even asphyxiating some.
The crew of the aircraft carrier fought the fire for several hours, and nearby carriers USS Constellation and USS Franklin D. Roosevelt quickly dispatched medical teams to aid with the wounded. Firefighters and rescuers risked their lives pushing through the smoke and heat to rescue survivors and to retrieve the dead. By the time the fire was out, 44 officers and enlisted men had been killed, and dozens more were wounded. Numerous aircraft were destroyed or damaged.
The Oriskany sailed for Subic Bay, the Philippines, two days later to undergo emergency repairs. The damaged carrier eventually reached San Francisco Bay for full repairs. The World-War-II-era ship returned to duty off the coast of Vietnam in mid-1967. The Oriskany earned two battle stars for service in Korea and five battle stars for Vietnam. It was decommissioned in 1975, and in 2004 the Navy scuttled the vessel off the coast of Pensacola, Florida, to form an artificial reef.1
1Edward J. Marolda, By Sea, Air, and Land: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy and the War in Southeast Asia (Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 1994), 96–97; “USS Oriskany (CVA 34),” Navy.mil, http://www.navy.mil/navydata/nav_legacy.asp?id=51 (accessed 10/27/15); “Oriskany,” Naval History and Heritage Command, http://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/o/oriskany.html (accessed 10/27/15).