Aug. 18, 2007
I-35W bridge collapse recalls Vietnam-era
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 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
“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