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USS Forrestal Fire Survivors Reunite

Survivors Recall, Cope With Navy Tragedy

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The 1967 USS Forrestal fire is considered one of the greatest tragedies in U.S. Navy history. In all, 134 sailors died when several bombs went off on the flight deck.

Many of the survivors reunited in Jacksonville on Wednesday, where the carrier was home ported from 1977 to 1990.

"A lot of us thought we were being attacked," said Ken Killmeyer, historian for the USS Forrestal Association.

The men were united by the same near-death experience. In 1967, they were Navy sailors serving in Vietnam aboard the USS Forrestal when one morning, a rocket accidentally ignited on the flight deck.

"That weapon fragmented and hit the external fuel tanks of two aircraft," Killmeyer said. "One was (U.S. Sen.) John McCain's and one was Fred White."

The fire set off nine bombs, killing 134 sailors. The devastation was so bad that many of the survivors couldn't bring themselves to talk about it.

"Because this is traumatic, so you shut it down," Killmeyer said while tearing up. "When you get home, you don't talk about it either."

Now, survivors of the Forrestal fire get together each year.

"This is therapeutical for all of us that were aboard it because now we're talking about it," Killmeyer said.

Killmeyer said while many sailors went on to live productive lives after the war, others could never cope.

"They went to alcohol. They went to dope. They went and were angry," he said.

"This is the first time I've ever talked about it. It's been 44 years," survivor Charles Russell said.

Charles and his wife, Anna, had their first time at the reunion Wednesday.

"The night before, I had a restless night and I dreamed that the ship was on fire," Anna Russell said.

At the time of the fire, Anna was nine months pregnant and didn't know if she'd ever see her husband again. She remembers the day he came home.

"So finally, I saw him. I said, 'There he is,'" Anna said. "So he ran to us and we hug, and I said, 'This is your baby.'"

Charles and Anna had their son baptized on the Forrestal.

Anna said she wants to keep the memories alive for her grandchildren. And now her husband will find the heart to share his war stories, too, she said.

The first stop on the Forrestal's return trip home was Mayport. Several of the airmen were stationed at Cecil Field.