Denfeld News

Aug. 18, 2007
Duluth News Tribune

I-35W bridge collapse recalls Vietnam-era calamity
By Chuck Frederick

Explosions rocked the USS Forrestal 40 years ago this summer. Working below the four-acre flight deck, Duluth Denfeld graduate Tom Tesser — now retired and living his summers on Island Lake — wondered immediately whether his Navy ship was under attack. It wasn’t, but the jarring detonations igniting fires above his head were still adding up to what was, at the time, the worst U.S. naval disaster in a combat zone since World War II.

His ship, an 80,000-ton attack aircraft carrier, had been in the Gulf of Tonkin just five days that summer of 1967, launching airstrikes against North Vietnam. Just before 11 a.m., while preparing for the day’s second launch, a malfunction aboard a fueled and armed Skyhawk caused one of the plane’s missiles to fire prematurely. It screamed across the flight deck toward Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain, now a U.S. senator but then a fighter pilot. McCain heard a “whooshy” sound, according to the Navy, and then a “low-order explosion.” In front of him, a pair of A-4 planes went up in flames, their own fuel feeding the fire.

The blaze spread quickly, consuming aircraft after aircraft. Some 5,000 officers and enlisted men scrambled in all directions, some fighting the fire, others fleeing it.

Heroic instincts took over. An ordnance demolitions officer ran out onto the flight deck to defuse bombs that were smoking and that could have detonated at any moment. A 130-pound lieutenant found the strength to heave a 250-pound bomb overboard. An enlisted man volunteered to be lowered by a cable through a hole in the flight deck to defuse a live bomb that had dropped down into one of the ship’s lower levels. Two crewmen who had been knocked overboard by an explosion were plucked out of the water by a rescue helicopter — and then immediately went back to work fighting the fires. A seaman manned a hose on the flight deck for nearly nine hours — so long that the soles of his shoes burned off. “But my feet are OK,” he said, according to the Navy. “I put on some flight deck shoes and went back in.”

The stories weren’t much different from those that emerged, and are still emerging, from the wreckage of the fallen Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis. The off-duty Minneapolis firefighter who immediately jumped into the rushing Mississippi River, tied herself to a life rope and swam car to car looking for survivors. The bystanders who rushed through the debris to carry terrified children from a crashed school bus on its way home after an afternoon of swimming. The Grandma’s Marathon wheelchair racer who smashed his van head-first into the bridge’s median to stop it from sliding off the bridge deck and into the water. The police officers who worked their way to his van the next day to salvage and return the racing chair he had stowed in the back.

In the face of tragedy, “You do things you didn’t know you were capable of doing,” said Tesser, who joined the Navy after high school, attended the University of Minnesota Duluth on the GI Bill, and was a longtime elementary schoolteacher in St. Paul.

With naval reservists from the Duluth area, he said, he spent much of the Vietnam War on the Forrestal. He worked most days as a mess cook in the ship’s stern, where many of the 132 crewmen who died that fateful day of July 29, 1967, were found. Another 62 of the Forrestal’s sailors were injured.

Not unlike the many Minnesotans whose plans changed or who were held up at work or who for other reasons weren’t on the bridge when it collapsed this month, Tesser wasn’t in the ill-fated stern of the ship when tragedy struck. He had been assigned that day to do payroll, in an office well away from the hottest fires.

“I was very lucky in that way,” he said. “I’ve been in contact with the chief who did that. I thanked him for saving my life.”

A general quarters’ alarm followed a fire alarm and sent Tesser and his shipmates scurrying to their battle stations. He helped load foam that was pumped to the ship’s deck and sprayed at the flames. “We were terribly afraid,” he said. “The ship was rocking so much.” Tesser also gathered up and delivered oxygen masks after an announcement was made they were needed by firefighters on the flight deck. Once there, he helped haul and aim water hoses.

Rescue helicopters, vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin and others rushed to the Forrestal’s aid.

Similarly, in Minneapolis, firefighters, police officers and emergency workers flocked — instinctively— from all around the Twin Cities to the fallen bridge. Their post-Sept. 11 training paid off.

In the weeks and months that followed the Forrestal fire, the Navy studied what went wrong and what went right. It re-examined its ships and its practices. And it issued two reports, each filled with recommendations to make sailors safer and better-prepared. “There were hundreds of [recommendations],” USS Forrestal Association historian Ken Killmeyer said this week. He e-mailed them to me. All 15 pages. Of tiny type. Single-spaced.

Also this week, preliminary drawings of a new Interstate 35W bridge were unveiled. Without any clue yet what caused the previous bridge to crumble, the new drawings seem rushed, like dessert arriving before you’ve had two bites of steak.

But the new plans are vague, at least. There’s a chance, it seems — a hope — that the flaws realized from the old bridge will be deliberately avoided in the design of the new one. That’s why history is important, after all. It teaches.

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