When Fire on the Flight Deck of the USS Forrestal killed 134 sailors

When Fire on the Flight Deck of USS Forrestal killed 134 sailors
An A-4 Skyhawk burns aboard USS Forrestal after its fuel tank was struck by a Zuni missile, on July 29, 2021. US Navy

On 29 July 1967, a fire broke out on board the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal that killed 134 sailors and injured 161.

At the time, Forrestal was engaged in combat operations in the Gulf of Tonkin, during the Vietnam War.

The ship survived, but with damage exceeding US$72 million, not including the damage to aircraft


Details: When Fire on the Flight Deck of the USS Forrestal killed 134 sailors

on 29 July an unguided Mk-32 “Zuni” rocket, one of four contained in an LAU-10 underwing rocket pod mounted on an F-4B Phantom II  accidentally fired due to an electrical power surge during the switch from external to internal power.

The rocket flew across the flight deck, striking a wing-mounted external fuel tank on an A-4E Skyhawk awaiting launch,

The Zuni rocket’s warhead safety mechanism prevented it from detonating. Still, the impact tore the tank off the wing and ignited the resulting spray of escaping JP-5 fuel, causing an instantaneous conflagration.

Within seconds, other external fuel tanks on the aircraft overheated and ruptured, releasing more jet fuel to feed the flames, which began spreading along the flight deck.

The impact of the rocket had also dislodged two of the 1000-lb AN-M65 bombs,

Damage Control Team No. 8 swung into action immediately, and Chief Gerald Farrier, recognizing the risk, and without the benefit of protective clothing, immediately smothered the bombs with a PKP fire extinguisher in an effort to delay the fuel fire spreading for long enough to allow the pilots to escape.

The pilots, still strapped into their aircraft, were immediately aware that a disaster was unfolding, but only some were able to escape in time.

John McCain in 1967 after the USS Forrestal disaster

John McCain McCain, the pilot of A-4 Skyhawk side No. 416, was among the first to notice the flames and escaped by scrambling down the nose of his A-4 and jumping off the refueling probe shortly before the explosions began.

Damage Control Team No. 8 had been assured of a 10-minute window in which to extinguish the fire and prevent the bombs from detonating, but the Composition B bombs proved to be just as unstable as the ordnance crews had initially feared; after only slightly more than one minute, despite Chief Farrier’s constant efforts to cool the bombs, the casing of one suddenly split open and began to glow a bright red. The Chief, recognizing that a lethal cook-off was imminent, shouted for his team to withdraw, but the bomb detonated seconds later — one minute and 36 seconds after the start of the fire.[

Damage Control Team No. 8 took the brunt of the initial blast. Chief Farrier and all but three of his men were killed instantly

When Fire on the Flight Deck of the USS Forrestal killed 134 sailors

Nine bomb explosions eventually occurred on the flight deck, eight caused by the AN-M65 Composition B bombs cooking off under the heat of the fuel fires, and the ninth occurring as a sympathetic detonation between an AN-M65 and a newer 500 lb M117 H6 bomb that it was lying next to on the deck.

The other Composition H6-based bombs performed as designed and either burned on the deck or were jettisoned but did not detonate under the heat of the fires.

The explosions tore large holes in the flight deck, causing burning jet fuel to drain into the ship’s interior, including the living quarters directly underneath the flight deck, and the below-decks aircraft hangar.

Sailors and Marines controlled the flight deck fires. Assistance was provided by one of the ship’s accompanying destroyers, USS Rupertus


It maneuvered around Forrestal, getting as close as 20 feet from the burning carrier, for 90 minutes using her own onboard fire hoses directed at the flight deck and hangar deck on the starboard side, and the port-side aft 5-in. mount.

The commanding officer of the Rupertus, Commander Edwin Burke, received praise for what Rear Admiral Harvey P. Lanham, aboard Forrestal as the Task Group commander, called an “act of magnificent seamanship”.

The fire left 134 men dead and 161 more injured.

The United States Navy uses the Forrestal fire and the lessons learned from it when teaching damage control and ammunition safety

Read more: When two USAF F-15s shot down two U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters,26 Died

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