Sunday, June 23, 2013

Collision at Sea

Almost 3 months after the completion of a 15 month overhaul, the aircraft carrier Coral Sea (CV-43) collided with an Ecuadorean oil tanker named Napo about 45 miles Southeast of Guantanamo Bay Cuba.

In June of 1985, 2 months after the crash, Life Magazine printed an incredible two page photograph of the damaged ship as it limped into port:

USS Coral Sea limps into port after colliding with an oil tanker in April, 1985
I remember that night as if it was yesterday.

I was a member of the weapons department's G-1 division. Our job was to unpack, prep, and deliver ordnance to the flight deck. The prep work included the occasional banding of a torpedo, attaching wings and fins to missiles, and assembling bombs and mines. On this particular evening, I was relaxing with about a dozen or so of my fellow shipmates in our division lounge after completing my 12 hour work shift. One thing that really stands out from that evening was that the seas were very calm. The little bit of ship rocking that was occurring went almost unnoticed.

The first sign that something wasn't right was a voice over the 1-MC (ships PA system) with an urgent message requesting the captain's presence on the bridge. I wouldn't have even noticed the request, except that 1-MC announcements were very routine. We heard the same messages at the same times every day like clockwork. By April of 1985, I had lived on the Coral Sea for over 31 months, and not once in that time had I heard a request for the captain to come to the bridge.

Not long after that announcement, I felt what I believed at the time to be a very large wave. I had felt large waves before while riding out a hurricane named Iwa in the South Pacific in 1982. But Iwa was much different, because in a hurricane, all the waves are big, for the most part anyway. This one seemed like a lone wave that came out of nowhere, which seemed very strange. Not too long after, it felt like a second large wave. We would later learn that these two events were the result of two collisions. The first was when the ships collided head on, the second was when the two monster sized ships swung into each other.

Shortly after the second impact, the collision alarm sounded. It was only then that I realized something was very wrong, because it was the first time I had ever heard that alarm without it being announced as a drill. The funny part about the collision alarm is that in our unit, most of us never actually trained to do anything in response to it, we just knew what it sounded like. Since it was obvious that some sort of collision had occurred, we all began donning life jackets.

Since we stored many of our bombs below decks up towards the front of the ship, a few of us headed that direction to make sure the hatches going down to them were secured. This was a precaution just in case we were taking on water. Once secured, we retreated back to our shop where we waited for word on our ship's condition.

After we were cleared to begin normal operations, I went up to the forecastle, also known as the focsle, which is the most forward part of the ship directly beneath the flight deck. It's the place where the huge anchor chains are stowed when the anchors are up. There are port holes in the focsle that allow for viewing straight down, and from there, even though it was dark, we could see that the front of the ship was badly bent.

The next morning I grabbed my camera and ventured up to the flight deck where I started shooting pictures. It wasn't long before one of my fellow shipmates warned me that cameras were being confiscated, because the captain didn't want anyone taking pictures. I don't know if what this person told me was true or not, but I wanted pictures, and I didn't want my camera taken away, so I continued shooting, but did so without drawing attention to myself.

What follows is a sampling of those photos.

This first one was taken from the point where planes were launched from catapult #3. On the ship, we referred to it as the angle deck.

For comparison purposes, here's a photo taken from roughly the same position 2 or 3 years earlier.

This shot was taken from a sponson located on the same level as the hangar bay on the port side.

This one is from a sponson just below the flight deck on the starboard side. It looks eerily like a bite was taken out of the front of the ship.

This photo was taken from the port side catwalk that runs alongside the flight deck directly above the damaged bow. That's part of the anchor in the upper left corner.

This shot was taken on the starboard side of the flight deck, right at the front of the upper structure. See that white box with the lid partially open, that lid would normally be on the top of the box, except that the rail it is attached to is now lying on its side. Good thing nobody was standing there when the two ships swung together.

The following shot was taken from the pier after we pulled into port. The white boxes in the prior photo can be seen almost dead center. Just to the right of those boxes and up a little is what looks like a grey tarp. That tarp is blocking a hole in the side of the ship that leads to a room that was full of electronic equipment at the time of the crash. Apparently, part of the upper structure from the Napo pierced through the wall, and pulled a bunch of equipment out of that room, jettisoning it into the sea. There was a sailor in that room who was lucky to have been standing at the far end.

This last shot is of myself and some of my fellow shipmates celebrating our first collision at sea. That's me fourth from the left in the back row.

I'm going to do my best to put names to those faces, unfortunately I don't remember all of them:

Starting from the left side in the back row: Lloyd Williams, Jeff Smith, Harvard Adams, me, Mike Parker, Jeff Duffy, Richard Ware, Robert Potts.

Starting from the right side in the front row: Russell Johnson, Milton Pinzon, Ervin Johnson, and unfortunately the last three names evade me at the moment.

Man oh man, those were some good times.

To the reader - If you were on the USS Coral Sea that fateful night in 1985, please feel free to leave your story below in the comments.


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  2. I remember that night also, I just got back to the berthing unit from the Armory. I was ship's armorer, G-3 division. We maintained all the ships small arms and ammunition, magazine sprinkler systems We also loaded the Phalynx systems during GQ. I remember the 1MC going off "Capt to the bridge" not long after that was "All hands brace for shock" then we hit. We went back to drydock a few days later, where I served out the remainder of my tour. It was some good times.

    1. Hi Jerry. I don't recall whether the two of us ever crossed paths, but it sure seems likely since we both served in the same department. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment shipmate!

  3. I came on board in early May 1985 after boot camp, A school and leave. Was supposed to either be flown out to the ship at sea or report to the main base, don't recall but due to this collision I had to meet the ship in Portsmouth SY

  4. EN2 Evans yes I was on board that day also. I remember it as if it just happen, events below deck were more dramatic (engining)fires flooding and crewmen trapped.Also don't forget that Russian trolley that had a play in the collision. Below decks we thought it was a torpedo that hit, remember it's no port holes below 😀

  5. I was on deck getting ready for a launch. Just got on deck from line shack on starboard side aft of the Island. (VFA-132)

  6. Anonymous7:59 AM

    Was v3 division on the hanger deck when this happened. Was onboard and sitting in hanger deck control. Couldn't believe this could happen then either but it did.

  7. Anonymous5:30 PM

    BT3 Brainard 1982-1986 just got off watch as the BTOW or boiler operator of the watch, of the fire room 4 baker, talking with the boys in the berthing compartment when we hit something hard. been on board when we hit a whale was not the same, than hit again not as hard, than we were called to general quarters so we knew it was bad.
    We had flooding, some internal damage, we where down in the fire room not sure how bad the ship was damaged, when you are 30' below the water line you worry about these things.
    When we pulled into port later it was very embarrassing. we looked like fools, just got out of the yards after 18 months and went right back in for 6 more weeks
    She was an old ship but she always met the bell.

  8. I remember it too! Em3 Cline at the time threw me out of my bed. Our birthing was upfront we got out okay but there was a lot of damage below. I served from 81
    through 85 on her.

  9. Anonymous12:11 AM

    I was a ABH V-1 79-83, i got off Coral Sea shortly before the end of the 83 World Cruise, One of my Captains of Coral Sea was later involved in the "Tail Hook Scandal" but we never collided with another vessel, we did have a close call once with a submarine.


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