Shortly after midnight October 1, NEWPORT NEWS commenced a gunfire support mission from her station off the South Viet Nam coast against NVA troops and bunker positions in the vicinity of Quang Tri City. At 0059, an in-bore explosion, caused by a defective projectile, tore through the inside of Turret II, burned more than 700 pounds of powder in the hoists, and ignited fires within the turret.
The OOD sounded the general alarm instantly and the word "Fire in Turret II" was passed throughout the ship on the 1MC circuit. The crew responded immediately. Personnel proceeded at once to man their general quarters stations, but many were impeded or stopped by dense smoke and noxious gases which were already filling the passages. Within moments key personnel of Repair Party I, the main deck repair party, arrived on the scene to establish required organization and communications. CWO Paul R. Abretski, the repair party leader, gave initial instructions to repair locker personnel and determined from Damage Control Central that electrical power had been secured to the turret. He then went forward to the 01 level just aft of the turret to direct personnel rigging fire hoses and to directly supervise the overall effort of Repair I.
CWO Abretski was soon joined by HTC Robert Holloway on the after platform of the turret. Together they felt the rear bullkheads of the turret and determined that a fire was probable. Upon close examination the three doors of the turret were discovered to be jammed. CWO Abretski ordered the doors opened and HTC Holloway supervised opening of the doors in accordance with damage control procedures. As soon as the first door was cracked, dense smoke billowed out of the turret, indicating a fire in progress.
Upon discovering the fire within the turret, CWO Abretski advised Damage Control Central and recommended flooding Turret II spaces. Almost simultaneously, high temperature alarm panels in Damage Control Central indicated dangerous degrees of heat in all Turret II magazines. Flooding of the magazines in Turret II was directed by the Commanding Officer. Repair Party II personnel carrying out investigations below decks had reported that the automatic sprinkler system had activated, and Repair I personnel standing by above were directed to carry out the flooding. HT3 Willard L. Warren and GMG3 Nicholas Caiazza, each outfitted with an oxygen breathing apparatus (OBA), were dispatched through smoke and gas filled passageways to the magazine flooding board. Upon completion of the flooding operation they reported back to CWO Sam A. Cosenza.
Even though intense heat and heavy black smoke made vision from the platform aft of the turret into the booth almost impossible, flames could be seen in the center gun pit. Under the supervision of HTC Holloway, repair party personnel led by HT3 William B. Care and SN Jerry L. Brown directed three fire hoses into the interior of the turret through the rear doors. CWO Abretski, fearing the possibility of the guns being loaded, took steps to cool the barrels. After the firefighting hoses had been rigged, he ordered HT2 David S. Edwards to utilize additional hoses to cool the gun barrels.
In assisting HT2 Edwards, SN Louis C. Brazoska, CPL Charles W. Campbell, and SN Randall B. Taylor had climbed into the powder casing nets beneath the barrels forward of the turret to gain a better position, and discovered a hole beneath the dangerously weakened center gun where the hot case chute had been blown out. They maneuvered a fire hose into this opening to better cool the inside of the turret.
Thirty minutes after the explosion the fire was fully extinguished and much of the smoke had been cleared from the turret by red devil blowers rigged on top of the turret. Investigations within the turret were initiated but harmful gas lingering in the turret made OBA's essential for those working inside. Because of the intense heat remaining in the vicinity of the center gun and pit area, further cooling inside the turret was necessary before personnel could descend into the lower spaces. By 0200, the hose teams started down through the gun pit and into the upper shell deck at the main deck and second deck level. By 0400 the gun pit and upper shell deck had been cooled sufficiently to make possible investigation and survey of the upper shell deck.
On the second deck and below, Repair Party II had had a much more difficult and complex problem in assessing the extent of damage and in carrying out damage control measures in the forward spaces of the ship. Normal manning and organization of the repair party was made impossible by the gases held within the second deck passage. Three men on watch in the Repair II locker at the time of the explosion were forced to evacuate the area. The repair party personnel arrived in the area of the locker but, to avoid being overcome by the gas and smoke, had to continue on up to the main deck through a hatch on the forecastle.
When HTCS William J. Hayes heard the general quarters alarm and learned of the explosion and fire, he started forward from the after CPO berthing compartment toward his station at the Repair II area. He recognized the smoke rolling into the second deck passage as the product of ordnance combustion and suspected it to be noxious. So he stopped at Repair IV, which had been opened by HT1 Andrew S. Hall, and donned an OBA and again proceeded forward to the Repair II area.
From his general quarters station in Central Control, EM1 Drew D Blackstock had directed the watch at Distribution 4 to secure power to Turret II. However, the alternate power supply to Turret II was from an automatic bus tie (ABT) on #1 emergency diesel switchboard, a space which could not be continuously manned due to heavy concentration of gases in this area. He directed EM3 Teodorico A. Reyes from Repair I to the diesel space to secure the ABT. EM3 Reyes quickly donned an OBA and proceeded to the emergency distribution board and secured the ABT, the last possible source of power to the turret.
Repair II is normally manned by about 45 personnel: however, the corrosive gas throughout the repair party area prohibited any activity without gas protection and operations were commenced with only 14 men. HTCS Hayes, normally the Unit 22 leader, was the senior man on the scene, and he assumed the roles of Repair Party Officer, Unit Leader, and Scene Leader. He organized his few men and directed some to assist survivors out of the area and others to conduct a quick investigation in areas surrounding the Turret II area for damage and survivors. He maintained control from the second deck hatch to the forward trunk leading to the lower turret levels.
HTCS Hayes led and directed personnel down into the forward trunk to the forward magazine complex to Turret II. He was accompanied by FN Sammie D. Epperson, EM3 Wayne C. Andrews, HT3 Merle B. Bonner, FN William L Sansoucie, Jr., and HT3 Pemberton. EM3 Andrews descended all the way to the hold level to secure power to Number 2 Fire Pump. At this time, HT2 Bruce Langendorfer arrived on the scene and assisted HTCS Hayes from a station at the top of the trunk.
When flooding was ordered HTCS Hayes ordered all personnel out of the magazine complex and ordered Condition ZEBRA reset throughout the trunk spaces. FN Marshall A. Rich and HT3 James R. Valetti proceeded aft, descended into the trunk to Turret II after magazine complex and closed the armored hatch to reset ZEBRA in that trunk. As the magazines were flooding, HTCS Hayes ordered the repair part to continue investigation in the surrounding areas and establish fire and flooding boundaries. Prior to securing the trunks, quantities of water had been observed in the magazines but it could not be determined if this had come from the automatic sprinklers, a ruptured fire main or a rupture in the hull.
After the trunks were closed, search of the area and evacuation of survivors continued. HT3 Warren and HT3 Pemberton gathered MK5 gas masks from the repair locker and proceeded aft. HT3 Warren provided CPO's trapped in their berthing compartment with masks. He then proceeded to the 1st Division berthing compartment where HT3 Pemberton had delivered the rest of the gas masks to personnel trapped in that compartment. DT1 John A. Wilson and HM2 George M. Thielen also assisted in evacuating the compartment.
When it was determined that the magazines had completely flooded and Repair Party I had reported the fire in Turret II out, Repair II was directed to secure the flooding, commence dewatering and to continue investigation. CPO Hayes directed investigation into the forward trunk and HT2 Langendorfer supervised the fire and flooding boundaries and personnel continuing the area investigation. With insufficient personnel to investigate both the forward and after trunks, assistance was requested from Damage Control Central. MM1 Harry B. Brewer reported to the area from Repair Party V with a partial unit outfitted in OBA's and prepared for dewatering the after trunk complex.
EM1 Richard H. Waters, in charge of operations on the second deck, directed the rigging of two submersible pumps into the forward trunks and the armored hatch was opened. As the water level dropped, hydraulic oil draining from ruptured lines began to accumulate on the surface of the water. This had been anticipated and to prevent this oil from fouling the electric submersible pumps, they were immediately replaced by a portable eductor. FN Joseph G. Murace then lined up the magazine complex to the secondary drainage system which expedited the dewatering process.
While the magazine complex was being dewatered, CPO Hayes directed another investigation through the Powder Handling Room to the two after magazines to search for further fire and flooding. As the water was evacuated, additional smoke was pulled down form the upper and lower shell decks inside the barbette. The source of this smoke not being immediately obvious, investigation for fire was intensified and expanded to the small arms magazines and spaces below the powder handling room.
The presence of smoke required the continued use of an OBA below the second deck level, and presence of oil and water presented the danger of an OBA canister fire or explosion. Repair II personnel who had been isolated topside were reorganized by EM1 Waters to open a watertight hatch directly above the forward trunk and rig red devil blowers to desmoke the magazine complex. By 0500, the air on the 1st platform level had cleared sufficiently that personnel could work for short periods of time without gas protection.
When the water level in the forward trunk had dropped and was draining well through the portable eductor and into the secondary drainage system, procedures were begun to open watertight doors into the 8-inch powder magazines. As the first door was undogged, water pressure held it closed. GMGC Donald R. Myers, who had been everywhere at once throughout the night, produced a hydraulic jack. With this, the door was cracked and water allowed to drain into the trunk.
At the after trunk, the augmenting unit from Repair V with MM1 Brewer in charge opened the armored hatch, and commenced dewatering procedures with a portable eductor rigged to discharge over the side. With this eductor, the trunk and two adjacent 8-inch powder magazines were dewatered. To expedite operations, water was again allowed to flow forward through the powder handling room to be drained by the eductor in the forward trunk and into the secondary drainage system.
After all spaces had been inspected and dewatering had progressed to the bucket and swab stage, repair party personnel were relieved on an individual basis. Damage control operations secured at 1200.