Friday, July 17, 2020


USN warships are designed from the keel up to catch fire and burn. That's why they have extensive fire fighting equipment literally built in at the outset. One really wants to catch a fire and put it out before it can take hold. Every sailor on my ship was extensively trained to do just that with the fire fighting agents at hand. In my last seagoing job I think we averaged a fire a day. It was back in the early 80s, old wooden fuel/lube oil soaked ship and I remember we were getting our quarterly fire fighting damage control assessment from the Group. That guy was walking down the pier at 0730 when the quarterdeck watch did everything right. They passed word over the 1MC telling all that there was a class c fire in compartment so and so. A half minute later they reported to the whole ship announcing the fire was out and a minute or so later announced the reflash watch was set.

right by the Main Brace so at least they could get a cold one before heading back into the fire

you have to know ship fires to realize just how pointless this is

Back then in my world the switchboard watch could terminate most class charlie (electrical fires) by simply opening the breaker on the switchboard for that piece of gear/part of ship. It was the Chiefs who had trained them to do that instantly without looking around for somebody to tell them what to do. A good engineer would hold fire fighting training every single day in port and at sea so the duty sections which changed every so often knew how to deal with it as a team. You used to be able to drive ships OK without a spec of electricity. Boilers didn't care. Neither did diesels. I can't recall running a gas turbine without electricity. I kind of doubt it could be done but I could also be wrong.

I wrote the watch bills for the whole ship and yet one of the things I never really had to bother with was the repair locker leader assignments to the crew. There was a number one nozzleman, there was a hoseman, there was a backup nozzle man for the applicator and hosemen for him as well. I was supposed to know each of their qualifications and when it reached idiotic levels, their dates of qualification or expected date if not quite qualified in writing. I didn't worry about it too much.

What the navy had was an ethos that required one truly good petty officer in place at the right time to deal with anything. We did that. Maybe we got lucky but there were only a couple of times that I can remember so well when I thought maybe we'd screwed up.  That was back when I was trying to fight a ship with just 23 men on it when it was designed to be fought by a full crew of 100. 18 of them didn't appear to have any qualifications at all but still our Group commander insisted that we keep our schedule and get underway. We did once do it for four days and nights and I had to explain to the CO that this would mean me being fast asleep on watch since I was the only Engineering Officer of the Watch, Top Watch, etc and that we had probably better be at anchor at those times so the qualified guys minding the generators were awake and on watch. Power and light 24 hours a day, oh, and firemain pressure of at least 100 psi.

There was a big difference between my experience and that of the crew in the ship above.  I knew from reading the history of my last ship class that any one of the hundred we had built could burn to the waterline and sink in under 12 minutes. The idea of fighting fires for 4 days and not sinking were not in the cards. We knew exactly how long it took to burn one down to the waterline because we did it a couple of times over the decades. The only survivor I remember was Enhance. It burned quite a bit during OPERATION ENDSWEEP and then it did it again later in SOCAL. Most of the rest that burned hard were simply discarded. There were, after all, a hundred of them.

The thing about the little ships was they had big fire fighting systems. It starts with fire hoses and huge pumps, CO2 smothering, HALON smothering and our favorite, Twin Agent which was a mix of water and foam to smother fires and our least favorite which was huge flasks of PKP; in both engine rooms and oddly enough, on the Damage Control deck above.

I did enjoy reading just a moment ago in the link that Pinnacle got hit by USS Forrestal way back when and
Atlantic 01/20/56: The USS James V. Forrestal (CVA-59) collides with the USS Pinnacle (MSO-462) at Norfolk, Virginia, slightly damaging the Pinnacle.
We kind of did that once when a new CO was trying to moor the ship his first time driving in 3 years and we kind of ran into USS Wainwright in Mina Sulman and left an insignificant tiny dent in her stern. Very embarrassing. At some point one simply accepts that the old skills have atrophied by neglect and the passage of time and every ship handles differently.

Wainwright somewhere


Max Blancke said...

It is different when yard work is underway. The fire doors and often watertight hatches cannot be closed, because there are hoses and wires and temporary ductwork running through them.
Sometimes all the firefighting gear is ashore, and the extinguishers being serviced as well. The fire main systems might be partially disassembled.
A whole different sort of fire prevention and fighting is required. When the work is done in a good shipyard, they have a reasonably effective system in place to do that. At a navy or private pier, that might not necessarily be the case.
It is no excuse for what happened, of course, but different skill sets are required.

Old NFO said...

It's a sad loss. Thankfully no lives were lost.

HMS Defiant said...

speaking as the Engineer, those times in the yards killed me. I had my guys carry every single CO2 extinguisher off the ship one morning to get hydroed. Sitting in the meeting in SWM with SUPSHIPS and those idiots asking if the budget could afford another $70/hour Mexican who was going to get minimum wage from SWM regardless who was going to be on the other side of the bulkhead from hotwork that was going to last for hours really made me angry. I pulled their chits for all future hotwork until I had one of my men available to act as firewatch. It's a thankless job that must be done and done by conscientious people who actually care. SWM and SUPSHIPS really didn't care at all. They made that clear every day. And yeah, a lot of those hoses going through the watertight doors were gas lines. Some day I'll write again about a very bad day when an oxyacetelyne rig jammed in the bottom of a pallet conveyer without exploding. O2 and grease in a pit 5 decks down right next to the LFORM magazine........

ASM826 said...

I got the impression that the external application of water from the tugs and the helo drops was to try to keep the exterior hull from melting through.

HMS Defiant said...

I should watch the news. I kind of scoffed at what you wrote even though I am familiar with you and yet then I remembered. I used to have high quality black and white pictures of the various tankers struck during the tanker war back before people in the West cared (we actually a photographer's mate on the LaSalle) and I clearly remember one of them where the superstructure had simply slumped to one side from the heat of the fires and of course, I'm familiar with what happened to the USS Belknap. When I wrote I was thinking of the truly terrific fires that engulfed the ships off Okinawa and yet the surviving ones didn't appear melted. CVA-59 used to be referred to as the forest fire but while the fires were enormous the ship itself didn't seem to melt. NAVSAFECEN blamed the uptakes for the out of control fires as I recall. As usual, it was a call to arms and just about everybody visited the uptakes and fan rooms to make sure there was nothing in there at all. What you wrote brought back some real memories. Thanks for writing.

ASM826 said...

The helicopter drops and continuous water on the exterior hull is called boundary cooling. It helps reduce the heat load inside the ship, protects the steel of the hull, and prevented the further melting of aluminum structural components suchas the forward mast. Here's an article from the US Naval Institute website that includes an interview with the Federal Fire Chief that had overall command of the firefighting effort.