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Navy Begins Probe of ‘Major League’ Fire Aboard Conyngham

May 9, 1990

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) _ The fire that killed one sailor and injured 18 on a guided-missile destroyer was so hot it made the decks bubble and melted firefighters’ breathing masks on their faces.

It was a ″major league fire″ that could have destroyed the 27-year-old USS Conyngham, said Capt. Joseph W. Perrotta Jr., skipper of a rescue vessel.

The Navy declined to comment on a possible cause of the fire, one of two fatal incidents on Navy ships Tuesday.

Navy officials said the fire started early Tuesday in the forward boiler room when the boiler was being lit. Fire and smoke spread quickly upward, filling berthing areas, the Command Information Center and the bridge. The Command Information Center is the ship’s nerve center with communications, radar and sonar.

The Conyngham docked early Wednesday, 21 hours after the fire erupted about 100 miles southeast of Norfolk, said Lt. j.g. Karl Johnson, an Atlantic Fleet spokesman.

Portholes were broken out along the right side of the vessel and a 12-foot- long scorch mark was visible just above the waterline at mid-ship.

Perrotta, skipper of the USS Normandy, said that when his ship approached the Conyngham, smoke was pouring out of the ship’s forward stack area and bridge. The Normandy provided additional firefighting equipment and personnel to help the Conyngham crew control the blaze.

Cmdr. William R. Williams, the Conyngham’s skipper, had ordered the affected spaces evacuated, leaving the ship dead in the water and without communications, and formed firefighting crews, Perrotta said.

The main fire was extinguished in about 2 1/2 hours by the ship’s 383-man crew, but sailors continued to monitor conditions because of the intense heat held by the aluminum decks and bulkheads, Perrotta said.

″The ship could have been lost if not for the gallant effort of the crew,″ he said.

Seaman James Choss, an electrician aboard the ship and one of the injured, told his mother he was getting ready for bed after working most of the night in the Combat Information Center when the fire broke out.

″He said a fuel pump blew down in one of the boilers″ and that’s what started the fire, Elizabeth Choss said from her home in Hammond, Ind.

″One of the other guys in the room was hit by a fireball that singed his hair,″ said Mrs. Choss. She said her son described hallways filled with smoke, holes burned in the floor, masks on firefighting gear that melted onto the faces of his shipmates and ″decks that were bubbling’ in the intense heat.

After the main fire was put out, the Conyngham was able to get under way on its own, but Williams shut down the boilers when a fuel leak was discovered. The ship was towed back to port, where it was met by about 200 crewmembers’ family and friends when it docked.

While the ship was in tow, a team of Naval Investigative Service agents was flown to the vessel to begin looking for the cause of the fire, said Lt. Cmdr. Deborah Burnette, a U.S. Atlantic Fleet spokeswoman. The commander of Destroyer Squadron 10, Capt. Raymond Sharpe Jr., will head the investigation of the accident.

Killed in the fire was Lt. Algernon Pope Gordon Jr., 34, of Montgomery, Ala. Gordon was the Conyngham’s operation’s officer, in charge of collecting, evaluating and disseminating tactical information.

Twelve of the 18 injured where flown to the Portsmouth Naval Hospital and to a hospital trauma center. Six others walked off the ship when it docked.

Navy officials said none of the injuries were serious, and five crewmembers were released from the naval hospital Wednesday.

At the mouth of Chesapeake Bay on Tuesday, Petty Officer 3rd Class Norbert Thomas Hanke of Lousiville, Ky., died after being struck by debris when the propeller of a hovercraft disintegrated. The accident occurred during small boat manuevers.

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