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USS Forrestal survivors speak of losing shipmates and the price - abc27 WHTM

USS Forrestal survivors speak of losing shipmates and the price of freedom

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This Sunday marks the 45th anniversary of the fire aboard the USS Forrestal. It was a freak accident that killed 134 U.S. sailors.

The disaster was caught on film but survivors wonder why this tragedy isn't well known.

"Fire, Fire, Fire. Fire on the flight deck. All hands to battle quarters," says a voice on the tape from that day.

 Midstate radio personality Dan Steele was on the Forrestal that day. 

"You could tell by the timbre of his voice, by the tone of his announcement that this was serious," said Steele.

Only moments into one of the deadliest catastrophes in U.S. Naval history, Steele knew many of his shipmates were dead - and that his ship was in trouble.

"This is early in the fire. You can see most of the flames are intact," said Steele as he shows photos of that day.

An accidentally fired rocket triggered a chain reaction of explosions and a fire that threatened the survival of the USS Forrestal and its crew of 5,500.

"At that particular moment in time, the entire crew became men because of what we had to do," Steele said. 

Far below the flight deck,  Newville resident Don Ridgely struggled against knee-buckling concussions to keep the ship's engines powered with steam.

"I turned into a real man after this," Ridgely said. 

Much has been written about the fire and there are memorials for the 134 men who died. But many survivors worry that Americans don't truly appreciate what happened 45 years ago off the coast of North Vietnam. 

"I don't really think that people have any idea of the Forrestal's tragedy," said Ridgely. 

Amidst tears, Steele recalls that fateful day.

"We had a ship to save and we did. You do what you have to do. And we did," he said. "I wish everyone watching this would understand the price we pay for freedom."

As his men worked to save the ship, the voice of the Forrestal captain came across the loudspeaker. 

"Men of Forrestal. This is the Captain," he said. "There are no words that say what comes from our heart tonight. And yet, we must try."

The USS Forrestal spent a year in repairs and then served the navy for another 25. This fall, the ship is set to be scrapped.

This weekend, the ship's crew will reunite in Washington, D.C. and dedicate a memorial to the fallen sailors. The memorial will be placed at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

For part one of this story, click here.

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