Norfolk, Va. - In a half-century of service, the nuclear carrier Enterprise had many proud moments. But without question, its darkest day was Jan. 14, 1969. An explosion on the flight deck ignited a stubborn inferno that nearly sank the warship. The relentless fuel-fed flames and explosions killed dozens.
These men were part of the crew that day. They're the fire survivors, a band of brothers who endured a tragedy that has bonded them like family.
“When the bombs went off, the flight deck just shook. Just shook. You could feel it like a tremor.”
Jets exploded on the deck. Missiles rocketed from burning wings. Bombs blasted holes in the ship's steel skin. Bullets whizzed by. Shrapnel raked the sailors. The official death toll from the Enterprise fire is listed as 27. But many of these men say that's nonsense. They say many more than that died and the government never owned up to the full total.
The worst day of their lives has brought them back to Norfolk 40 years later. They've come to say goodbye to the Enterprise as it leaves the service. The fact that there will be a ceremony Saturday is because so many sailors fought to save her all those years ago. Many gave their lives to the ship afloat.
“Without us, that ship would not be sitting there now.”
They were never honored for their bravery that day, so they honor each other with regular reunions. And this weekend, they will honor the ship that has embedded in them painful memories, and a sense of profound pride.
“The only thing I could say is, I could salute it, and say rest in peace. I enjoyed my duty with you.”