It was almost midnight when my world exploded and everything changed forever.
I was 22 and my squadron was out on deployment overseas. I remember very clearly that we were floating in the Indian Ocean and the night sky was perfect, you could see every star in the sky and I remember wishing that my parents and friends back home could see the sky that I got to see out here in the middle of nowhere.
I was heading up to the flight deck to join my shop on one of our birds that had a radar problem. I had to thread my way around all the airplanes on the flight deck because we had packed all of them up on the bow so that the fantail would be clear for our ‘unrep’ the next day – underway replenishment – food, band-aids, bullets and fuel. I was walking past an A-6 that had been pushed up into the beginning of the bow when the explosion hit and blasted me back and slammed me to the deck.
It was an almost surreal moment, I had my cranial helmet on so I didn’t crack my skull open on the deck and I remember looking up at the growing ball of fire and thinking “No, this can’t be real. This kind of shit only happens in the movies.” The fireball had extended across the entire deck in front of me and, I noticed later, had burn my exposed hair and smoked my clothing.
My training kicked in the next moment and I grabbed hold of a fire hose with a bunch of other guys who I didn’t recognize. The hose that came up on our left fanned the water over our heads to try and keep the fire from coming over the top of us and we aimed our hose and the deck and started sweeping back and forth. As soon as we got a layer of fire retardant down the burning fuel pouring out of the destroyed aircraft would just wash it away. We would sweep to the right and a river of fire would race in on the left, sweep to the left and it attacked on the right.
The image that will never leave me though is as we raced towards the fire shouting to each other I saw a person come out of the fire. He was engulfed by the flames and was quickly knocked down by some fellow sailors and they proceeded to smother the flames. I could hear him crying for someone to help him, crying for his mom and for god, but there was nothing I could do so instead I kept running. I ran at the fire and held onto the hose because I knew if I let go my courage would break and I would run as far away as I could get.
It seemed like forever but eventually the fire was out. From first explosion to the time that the deck sprinkler system went off was fifteen or twenty minutes.
It was the next day I learned that two guys from our A-6 squadron were killed in the blast, and the guy that was burned was a kid from my squadron who I helped train for the flight deck. His name was Chad Henderson and he had a girlfriend at home and had been planning to marry her when he got back. He had been saving all of his money while we were out so that he could afford the wedding. He was flown off and taken to Germany where we have one of the best burn centers in the world, but the burns were too bad and he passed away a few days after he got there.
The flight deck had been my playground for all that time, but from that day forward I knew that I was really playing in a minefield. When your 22 you think you are immortal until something like this brings you back down to earth. I won’t go into what caused the blast, it’s not really important now but I know that if I had been just a few steps further up the deck I would have been joining Chad. I think someone was watching over me that day.
Chad, I miss you buddy. TJ, Clay, Ron, Gonzo, Chester – take care my friends, our paths have parted but I still remember. Peaceful Memorial day to all of you