Much detail was provided to the Senior Men’s Club of Aiken when a crew member from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise was on board during a major fire in 1969 and related his first-person account.
Richard Vivianoa retired professional engineer, described some facts and figures about the carrier Enterprise and air crews during the January meeting of the Senior Men's Club. The Enterprise weighed 96,000 tons fully loaded, was powered by eight reactors, and was commissioned in 1961. With personnel numbering 5,600 (ship’s crew of 3,200 and 2,400 airmen) the ship was a small seagoing city that completed 25 deployments before being removed from service in 2012.
It is now moored at Norfolk Naval Shipyard being disassembled.
On the morning of the fire on Jan. 14, 1969, the ship was conducting a three-day Operational Readiness Inspection prior to going on its fourth tour to Vietnam.
Viviano, a qualified propulsion plant watch supervisor, was in the engine room when the fire broke out on the flight deck at 8:19 a.m. and the “General Quarters” was sounded by Commanding Officer Capt. Kent Lee. Several planes loaded with fuel, a full complement of five 100-pound bombs and rockets were on the flight deck when the incident occurred, Viviano said.
The first explosion occurred on a jet getting prepared for takeoff. Its bombs exploded and fuel was released on the deck quickly setting off more explosions and release of JP-5 jet fuel from other planes, Viviano recounted. Each plane was loaded with jet fuel, ordnance and rockets. Seventeen more explosions quickly followed causing great damage to the ship and loss of personnel. The burning jet fuel from the planes with all the attending fire and smoke made its way down to as many as six levels in the ship through the openings in the deck caused by the bomb explosions.
A destroyer, USS Rogers, DD 876 came to the carrier, pulled alongside and sent water from their fire hoses to the carrier to help fight the blaze. The fire was extinguished on the flight deck by 9:40 a.m. and below decks by 11:40 a.m., Viviano said.
The fire left 28 crew members dead and 343 injured, many seriously. Two were missing and presumed dead.
The fire was determined to have been initiated by a Huffer coming too close to a rocket pod on one plane and the hot exhaust from the Huffer’s gas turbine air start compressor caused the plane’s rocket pods to overheat and explode. Explosions on other planes followed.
The Enterpise went to Pearl Harbor to be repaired before continuing its mission in Vietnam.
Richard Viviano had nothing but high praise for the crew of 18-21 years old men and for the officer’s leadership. Viviano cited the Navy’s exhaustive fire-fighting training, mandatory since the USS Forrestal fire, that saved lives and further ship’s damage.