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“Carrier Fire”


That’s all the title had in it: “Carrier Fire”.  I got this email from my father a few years ago and read it with great appreciation.  Dad was a Marine before he was a firefighter, and as I’ve told many people many times, he never really saw the difference.  I grew up running around the firehouse and heard stories like these from him and others, many of whom were former old-school military.

I’ve recently been researching the evolution of OSHA and how we moved from the 1960s, when more workers were killed and injured each year than soldiers lost in Vietnam, to modern and “safer” workplaces where 13 are still killed each day and hundreds of thousands more are injured or made ill every year.  That evolution did not happen in a vacuum.  A long history of very bad things got us here, and the story of the December 19, 1960 fire on the aircraft carrier Constellation is a perfect example – no safety program, flammable and combustible liquids mixed with unmanaged hot work in confined spaces, forklifts working in close proximity, no fire suppression, combustible wooden scaffolds, poor ventilation, no rescue or evacuation plans…  This is a textbook description of pre-OSHA workplaces, where safety messages such as “Be Careful – It’s Hell to be a cripple” (I have the sign) were the harsh reality of a day at the plant.

I’m going to share Dad’s email because it tells a first-hand account of this tragedy that you won’t read anywhere else, and it reminds us of the kind of events that led to the creation of OSHA.  It also gives you a glimpse of how hard these events are on the responders.

Carrier Fire

“Around mid-December 1960, I had just come off of 24 hours of running guard duty and was looking forward to some chow and sleep when a van pulled up alongside me and a Marine captain ordered me to get in.  He had managed to gather 8 or 10 marines and was rushing us to the dock area where a crisis was in progress.  A large aircraft carrier, the USS Constellation, was nearing completion when a fire had broken out below decks causing the 2,000 civilian workers on board to panic.  A crane was beginning to take off a dozen workers at a time but there were hundreds pouring out onto the flight deck along with black smoke and flames.  It was snowing and between the smoke and the snow, visibility was not great.

In the absence of any order, the Marine captain took charge and I, a 19-year-old Marine, was assigned a group of civilian welders — most of them three times my age and ten times my experience — to attempt to cut an escape hatch through the hull.  Trapped men were beating on the inside of the hull with hammers and the cutting process was painfully slow since the hull was almost a foot thick.  In a tragic drama that was repeated 5 or 6 times, we would hear our area go quiet and would abandon this area to move to a new location where men were still beating on the hull.  This operation, I am sorry to say, was never successful.  Meanwhile, men downwind from the fire on the flight deck were often forced over the side by the flames. This meant a 100-foot drop into an icy river.  Perhaps many of these men lived to tell about their jump, but some hit barely visible pier posts sticking just above the water.

About this time the New York Firefighters began arriving and I was reassigned to assist them.  Long ladder trucks gave us access to the flight deck and, after the remaining workers were rescued, crews took hose line to the deck and began fighting the fire.  I found myself halfway up a ladder holding a hose and when it was charged with water, it became extremely heavy, almost taking me and the firefighter above me off into the river.

Time and events became blurred.  I remember bits.  When the first charred bodies were removed, a newspaper photographer began taking pictures of the bodies. The Marine captain, who seemed to be everywhere and who was the only authority that we Marines recognized, ordered the photographer to give him the camera.  When he refused, the captain looked at me and another Marine and said, “I want that camera.” When a Marine captain tells enlisted men that he wants something, he gets it.  He got the camera and then threw it into the East River.

Other memories include the horrible prevailing smell of charred humans mixed with the odor of hamburgers being cooked by the Red Cross workers near the temporary morgue where we were placing the bodies, extreme fatigue, brief and infrequent periods of rest, cold, snow and heart wrenching sights as the last of the 54 bodies were brought out over a three-day period.

When finally relieved, I had somehow been on my feet for four days and nights and could barely walk or speak.  After getting word to my new wife, Kay, who feared that I was one of the dead since she had not heard from me, I collapsed into a deep sleep.  We were each required to write a detailed report of our activities before leaving the base.  This tragedy is included in the book The Darkest Hours.  This is the first time in 50 years that I have put anything on paper about this.”

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