A few months after I was detached from ORISKANY, in the summer of 1966, shortly before it departed once more to WestPac, there was a news flash reporting that the carrier had experienced a deadly fire off the coast of Viet Nam. When I was finally able to get details of the disaster, I learned the fire had begun in a locker on the hangar deck where magnesium flares were stored. These flares are dropped by parachute so they’ll drift slowly to the ground while illuminating a wide area, burning at an extremely high temperature. A crewman had mishandled a flare and caused it to ignite. He panicked and, instead of running a few yards onto the sponson and throwing it into the sea, he dropped it in the locker and beat a hasty retreat. Within a few minutes the rest of the flares in the locker were burning, pouring out a huge cloud of toxic smoke. This deadly fog was drawn into the ship’s ventilation system and dispersed through the forward part of the ship.
This flare locker was right by the top of the ladder (stairwell) from the hangar deck down to two lower decks where some storerooms, work shops and the public information office/TV studio and the hobby shop were located. The toxic smoke filled all these spaces, killing everyone in them, including the public information crew. Some of the dead were guys who had worked for me and others were new guys who came aboard shortly before the ship deployed. There were more casualties in an area of officers’ staterooms forward and above the hangar deck. One of the best officers I ever knew in the Navy was one of the casualties.
If I had still been aboard I almost certainly would have been in the public information office to die with my crew. The ORISKANY fire was one of a few incidents during my 20 years in the Navy when I got a free pass while some near me did not. Whether karma or random chance, who can say?
Several years after being decommisioned, the Big “O” was purposely sunk off Pensacola, Florida, to become a very popular diving target for scuba divers. At least it was a better end for a gallant ship than being turned into razor blades. The ship’s sinking was the subject of a television documentary. Watching it, I felt as if I was seeing the funeral of an old and esteemed friend.