timothycummings

Essential Thoughts for Mission Essential Professionals

A Steel Ship and Iron Men – Catastrophic Failure and Courage on USS IWO JIMA (LPH 2)

“The application of sound engineering practices and common sense should have prevented this accident.”

“There were many acts of bravery and good judgment under extremely stressful and dangerous conditions. Concern for shipmates was a common thread present throughout the tragedy.”

– Record of Proceedings of the Inquiry into USS IWO JIMA (LPH 2) Engineering Casualty.

In August 1990 an international coalition led by the United States began preparations for war. Called Operation Desert Shield, it involved the coordination and prepositioning of military forces that would be deployed in Desert Storm. One warship included in the buildup was USS IWO JIMA (LPH 2). She was a 30-year old amphibious assault ship with a crew of over 700 and capable of transporting a Marine aviation squadron and landing team of over 1,500. She was dependable and deployable. Just weeks after the start of Desert Shield, she participated in maneuvers meant to confuse the Iraqi army. In late October, the ship transmitted a maintenance request to the Navy’s repair unit in the region, Ship Repair Unit Detachment Bahrain (SRU), for repairs to components in her propulsion plant which required repairs before returning to the operational theater. An item added later, which did not have to be repaired before returning to sea, was main steam valve 2MS-7, which provided steam generated from #2 boiler to a turbo service generator. IWO JIMA requested it be added to “to maximize valve maintenance” and “correct a myriad of small packing and flexitallic gasket leaks”. SRU requested additional information about 2MS-7 and ship’s force personnel responded with information, a part of which indicated it was a six-inch globe valve. In reality it was a four-inch gate valve.

Because failures in main steam systems pose great danger to the crew and its proper operation is vital to a ship’s mission, the Navy categorized them as having the highest “level of essentiality”, referring to the degree of regulation and control required to assure reliable repair and maintenance.  Because maximum confidence was required, the strictest oversight – “Level I control” – applied to maintenance and repairs conducted on 2MS-7 valve and adherence to numerous operating, maintenance, material, inspection and quality assurance (QA) procedures were mandatory.

SRU personnel were not aware 2MS-7 was in a Level I system subject to Level I controls. They thought they were managing repairs on a less critical Level III system, but even so, the surveyor chosen to define and have oversight of the work informed the resident marine surveyor that he had never developed repair specifications for valve repairs. Nonetheless, he was directed to create them, for despite the recent augmentation to the unit increasing its staff from nine to seventy-six people, he was the only surveyor available. SRU’s workload had increased from seven ships to thirty-one. The SRU acting officer-in-charge later testified he was under pressure from Naval Logistics Support Force to complete IWO JIMA repairs quickly to free up the power barge supplying electricity to the vessel for use by USS LA SALLE and the resident marine surveyor, who supervised all surveyors, was under the impression repairs needed to be completed quickly for operational reasons. Neither impression was accurate.

On Thursday, the 25th of October she arrived in the Port of Manama in Bahrain, an island less than 400 square miles in size 20-miles off the coast of Saudi Arabia. A conference was held on the ship that included the SRU acting officer-in-charge and resident marine surveyor, representatives from fleet- or Navy-wide units and the IWO JIMA Chief Engineer. During the conference the ship’s Chief Engineer, who knew 2MS-7 was a Level III valve by design but Level I by application, stated the ship had no replacement parts for 2MS-7. Neither he nor any other conference participant asked about or mentioned Level I requirements on any of the scheduled work. The Chief Engineer was under the impression the surveyor was familiar with Level I procedures, that his written work specification called for Level I controls, and the contractor knew how to do Level I work. His thinking was contrary to a Naval Surface Forces Atlantic instruction which stated “The engineer of a ship shall ensure that controlled material requirements are included in work requests where a determination has been made regarding the requirements of Level I controlled material.” On Level I taskings that required material, a ship would normally provide what was needed because detachment level SRUs would not maintain an inventory of Level I material.

This error of initially communicating that 2MS-7 was a globe valve was discovered. The surveyor knew his specifications should be corrected but he did not do so due to perceived time constraints and how the work on 2MS-7 had been characterized as a Level III item (due to ship’s force never identifying it as Level I). He wasn’t knowledgeable enough to have caught the error on his own, but a surveyor’s work package was supposed to be reviewed by the resident marine surveyor, whose position required knowledge of Level I ship repairs.

Following the conference, inspection of the listed items was made. Because the plant had been on line recently and was still hot, 2MS-7 remained covered in insulation preventing examination. The work specification was expedited so the contract could be awarded to a civilian contractor before noon. That was when the Bahrainian weekend began and only a few hours after the end of the conference. Even so, work would not begin until the start of the new work week. The next day, the oversight of the repairs were reassigned and the surveyor turned his documentation and work specifications over to another surveyor, who was familiar with Level I requirements on diesel and oxygen generation systems, but not on steam systems. As he transferred the work to the second surveyor he said the ship was gathering technical documentation for SRU and what parts the ship was providing. Both surveyors later testified neither of them received the requested information.

Due to miscommunication, misunderstandings and mistaken assumptions, a correct understanding of quality assurance requirements, and who was responsible for ensuring the required QA was indeed performed, was thwarted. Where procedures, policy and practical common sense should have made for a clear development and execution of QA requirements, a rough patchwork of vastly different interpretations emerged:

  • Ship’s force personnel thought responsibility for all work specification check points were shared by SRU and the civilian contractor. This is the case when work is performed at larger U.S. based repair units, but not in foreign ports.
  • The SRU officer in charge and one surveyor thought IWO JIMA personnel was responsible for QA for the contractor’s work, and indeed, the Chief Engineer and Commanding Officer ultimately were. Had they reviewed the specification they should have discovered QA requirements that would have ensured progress inspections and check points were absent.
  • Another surveyor thought the contractor had responsibility to provide a QA inspector to be on board during the repair work.
  • Other SRU personnel thought that surveyors were responsible only for completion of a job in accordance with the specifications, but this was not the same as the QA that was required.
  • The contractor’s perspective was the surveyor is primarily responsible for confirming the work was adequately completed.
  • The Sixth Fleet’s maintenance officer said QA in repair work is a shared responsibility between the ship’s force and the surveyor.

It was the responsibility of the Chief Engineer to establish a team of qualified personnel to monitor progress and inspect the work being performed by commercial contractors, witness quality control tests, and assure correct completion of the work. He had a standing requirement that his personnel monitored all work in the plant, no matter what entity was doing the work, and such an organization existed when he reported aboard nineteen-months earlier but it waned. In July 1989, IWO JIMA promulgated a ship’s quality assurance instruction but in October 1990, the engineering department was not utilizing it.

On Sunday, October 28th, a civilian employee of the shipyard contractor boarded the ship and began disassembling of 2MS-7.  He was not expected to read the repair specification but to take “general repair guidance” from his foreman, who did have a copy of the specification, which SRU routinely issued in a simple form because of language barriers, and because the contractor wouldn’t have the reference documentation cite therein. After he resurfaced the portions of the gate and valve body that controlled steam flow, IWO JIMA’s Chief Engineer and a Chief Boiler Technician inspected the work and the Chief Engineer directed the surveyor to reassemble 2MS-7. The contractor foreman was required to inspect the work but did not do so; he was confident in the pipefitter’s ability to work on Level I systems even though neither one spoke the other’s language. An amendment to the “Master Agreement for Repair and Alteration of Vessels” between the Navy and the contractor stipulated at least one English speaking employee be on board when work was being done. Although the Master Agreement had been in force for six years, SRU did not have a copy.

Not aware of the stringent material control on the work he was performing, the pipefitter approached a crewmember for new parts. The ship’s force had not been instructed to not provide any parts for the work, so, despite the language barrier, he was shown the parts bin from which he selected four bolts, eight studs and 20 3/4 -inch nuts. He possessed ten years of experience but hadn’t noticed that some of the nuts he chose were brass. Because those fasteners were covered with a manufacturer-applied black coating, at a glance, they could be mistaken for the correct grade 4 steel nuts. The pipefitter knew silver nuts in the bin were steel, but was unsure of the dark colored ones. Closer examination by way of a scratch or magnetic test, would have revealed their metal content. Brass nuts were not appropriate for use on any system exceeding 400° F. IWO JIMA’s propulsion plant operated in excess of 800° F. Past the maximum rating of 400 ° F, the tensile strength of this copper and zinc alloy was lost and when IWO JIMA left port two days later, the nuts would be subjected to a system temperature 116% above their limit. Without “general repair guidance” from his foreman, he reassembled the valve, mixing eight studs with four bolts. The valve should have been reassembled using only B-16 steel studs; doing otherwise was a violation of good engineering practice. He also unwittingly started a battle with physics that could not be won when he placed at least one brass nut on each stud or bolt.

The non-English speaking pipefitter indicated to ship personnel he had finished the work and disembarked IWO JIMA. The next day the valve was reinsulated with lagging, covering it up again. The foreman had never looked at 2MS-7 and now no one would be able to. When the plant was lighted off, every sailor in the fireroom then would be at extreme risk, and the likelihood the ship’s mission commitments could be missed was significant. Navy propulsion plants were dangerous places. From the late 1800’s to mid-20th century, no less than 52 Medals of Honor were issued for heroism in engineering spaces.

On October 30th in preparation to get underway and proceed to her operating area, fires were lighted in the boilers at 0218 (#1) and 0556 (#2). At 0353, one side of 2MS-7 was initially pressurized with steam generated from #1 boiler. Between 0630 and 0720, valve 2MS-7 was opened to supply steam to the generator that supplied electrical power to the vessel. The passage of superheated steam – a powerful and invisible gas with immense energy and now at a searing 865° F – pressurized the bonnet and heated the bolts, studs, steel and brass nuts. The brass nuts were coming under a strain for which they were never designed – and were incapable of holding – and they rapidly softened. At 7:50 am, a Boiler Technician Third Class saw the lagging insulation covering 2MS-7 smoldering and discussed this with two other petty officers. Four minutes later the wheelhouse received the report from main control the plant was ready to “answer all bells”.  At 7:56 am, IWO JIMA was underway, headed for her part in the largest military buildup since World War II. She would quickly reach a catastrophic destination made inevitable due to improper repair specifications, inadequate work procedures, use of non-certified material and no quality assurance merging with the lack of proper supervision, missing inspections and check points.

At 0811, main control requested permission to shut down #2 boiler because of a steam leak reported by the Boiler Technician of the Watch. The officer of the deck approved the request. One minute later “a major steam leak” was reported to the bridge along with the request to sound general quarters. Seconds before the valve’s failure, one sailor, who had just entered the fireroom, saw four men on the upper level looking at the failing valve beneath them. Immediately he was waved off by the main propulsion assistant. As he turned around and began exiting the space he heard the loud bang of the valve bonnet explosively detaching. Instantly, the entire space within the fireroom was overcome by 640 p.s.i. superheated steam. He was already on the ladder leading up but because of being suddenly enveloped in extreme heat, he questioned himself “Will I be able to make it out?” Because he had literally just set one foot in the fireroom when the lieutenant motioned for him to leave, he escaped with no injuries and survived. Just a few feet more and he would have received irremediable injuries along with ten watch standers in the space.

Moving between eight- and nine-knots, the ship’s steering was lost for about a minute and when the vessel had slowed to a safe speed of five-knots the OOD ordered both anchors dropped to slow, and then halt, the ship. Bold professionalism, augmented by training in major steam leak casualty control procedures in June and August, was evident in many locations. In main control, quick actions were taken to mitigate further impact. Like the watch standers on duty in the fireroom, other individuals moved with rapid purpose, making lightning-fast assessments in main control, on the mess decks and the bridge saving the ship from more damage.

The four men who were looking at 2MS-7 initially did not attempt to escape, rather, they ran away from the exit toward the lower level to undertake casualty control measures, a disciplined, professional and sacrificing move because the decision would unquestionably doom them. All ten of the sailors standing watch that morning knew the procedures for a major steam leak stated personnel should attempt, as time permits, to locate and isolate rupture and secure equipment including securing boiler. Without hesitation, three of the men standing above 2MS-7 rushed farther into apocalyptic space but quickly realized there was nothing they could accomplish. Gravely injured in the few seconds that had passed since the release, they made their way to the fireroom exit and ascended the ladder to the mess deck where they were treated by other crew members until the medical staff arrived. The other sailor who had been above the valve climbed through the escape hatch and walked to sick bay. Despite their own fatal injuries, the four men who escaped pleaded to those who were caring for the injuries that those who hadn’t escaped had to be helped. In time, they were transferred to the USNS Comfort to receive appropriate medical care for their devastating thermal injuries. All of them, these sailors who had responded courageously to be immediately vanquished by the horror that enveloped them, died later that day on the hospital ship. In the moments following the accident, one thought was on the minds of the rest of crew: Six shipmates were still in the space.

The remaining sailors in the fireless inferno went about implementing procedures for controlling a major steam leak. The fuel oil pump for #2 boiler was manually tripped to shut down the fires and attempts were made to trip the quick closing valves on the fuel oil supply to #1 boiler. If the fires in either boiler were not extinguished significant damage to the ship probably would have occurred. The sailor performing this casualty control procedure also tried to time it so steering wouldn’t be lost for a longer period that would pose an even greater hazard to the ship leaving port and to prevent causing a major brownout of the electrical system. Another, forgoing a good chance to escape, stayed to switch control of the turbo generator to main control. On the mess decks another sailor who had not been in the fireroom at all, shut the main and auxiliary main steam stop valves on both boilers by using remote operators. The main steam stop valve for #2 boiler, 2MS-1, did not shut because the air supply line to the valve motor had been severed by the explosion. The hellish leak from 2MS-7 could not be isolated. Upon recommendation of the Machinist’s Mate of the Watch, the Chief Engineer ordered throttles to full open to pull as much steam from the system as possible and ordered positive air flow into the fireroom to clear the steam and cool the space. The other turbo generator was left on line to continue its use of the steam supply. A Boiler Technician First Class attempted to enter the fireroom to trip the fuel oil pumps but the forceful heat was impenetrable.

Twenty-three minutes after the explosion, and now on their second attempt, two petty officers entered the menacing fireroom to search for their shipmates. They too had been turned back earlier, but as scared as they both were, what kept them going forward was their shared thought, a hope really, that someone had made it through. While approving their aggressive and courageous request, the Chief Engineer instructed them to assist anyone in the fireroom as needed. Otherwise, they were told to identify the sailors still in the space.

Once a space filled with engineering wonders – where man created and harnessed 16 megawatts of energy that moved the 18,400 ton vessel around the world – was now a furnace of devastation. Still exceptionally hazardous because of the incredible heat, the fireroom presented a stunning landscape: Everything was white. The explosion obliterated insulation covering pipes, valves and fittings and dusted everything within the space with fine particles. Working quickly for the sake of the six as well as themselves, the two sailors found the lifeless bodies their shipmates. Where they found them told the story: The delay of all ten, and the inability of the six who never escaped, was due to their attempts to shut down the steam plant and save their ship.

Reminiscent of five Marines and one sailor raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi – the highest point on Iwo Jima – ten sailors in one of the lowest locations on USS IWO JIMA, with many shipmates in other locations of the warship, acted in the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service the day 2MS-7 surrendered and hell came calling.

In Memory Of:

Lieutenant John M. Snyder

Boiler Technician 1st Class Robert L. Volden

Boiler Technician 2nd Class Mark  E. Hutchinson

Boiler Technician 2nd Class Fred R. Parker Jr.

Electricians Mate 2nd Class Daniel Lupatsky

Boiler Technician 3rd Class David A. Gilliland

Machinists Mate 3rd Class Michael N. Manns Jr.

Machinists Mate 3rd Class James A. Smith Jr.

Boiler Technician Fireman Apprentice Daniel C. McKinsey

Boiler Technician Fireman Apprentice Tyrone A. Brooks

“Fair winds and following seas”.

The explosion on IWO JIMA rumbled through the entire non-nuclear surface fleet. The Judge Advocate General (JAG) and Naval Investigative Service (NIS) investigations determined that missteps in the required quality assurance procedures were not isolated to SRU or USS IWO JIMA. The Court’s proceedings found “the failure of USS IWO JIMA to maintain a viable QA program is a tragic example of a greater QA deficiency in the non-nuclear” Navy. Concurrent with the investigations a significant fleet-wide review was undertaken and it was discovered a vast number of ships were not consistently embracing required quality assurance processes. Even IWO JIMA’s Chief Engineer, who had initiated or resumed certain QA measures since reporting aboard, wasn’t following his department’s engineering organization and regulations manual. In response to the major engineering casualty, quality assurance manuals were simplified and QA responsibilities of ship personnel clarified throughout the fleet. Pocket-size guides to QA was provided for every sailor in the fleet and proper training and program reviews were instituted along with increased attention to QA by the leadership of the Navy’s surface fleets.

The direct cause of the accident was the improper use of black coated brass nuts. The potential for an engineering casualty anywhere in the fleet was identified by the Navy in 1975, but because an all-out purge never took place, they remained an inventory item in 1990. The Court called for the removal of all such fasteners, fully and finally rectifying the problem that was first acknowledged fifteen-years earlier.

After the accident IWO JIMA spent six weeks in port for repairs before getting underway and serving in Operation Desert Storm. In 1992 she participated in the humanitarian mission Operation Provide Promise as a search and rescue resource in the Adriatic Sea for aircraft delivering aid supplies to Sarajevo. In 1993, weeks short of thirty two years of active service, the USS IWO JIMA (LPH 2) – the first vessel built from the keel up to deliver both air and ground forces – was decommissioned and cut up for scrap three years later.

What’s your plant’s SITREP (situation report for civilians)?

  • Is your operation founded on properly trained and qualified personnel?
  • Is it established on proven and proper procedures?
  • Is it free of assumptions and shortcuts?
  • Are honest and professional questions and suggestions genuinely encouraged?
  • Are there any real or perceived limitations on anyone stopping or reporting an unsafe situation?

Timothy C. Cummings, a former Navy 1,200 p.s.i. boiler technician, is a Certified Plant Maintenance Manager and antiterrorism specialist. His original case study of the USS IWO JIMA accident was selected to be the keynote speech at a national human performance/root cause conference in 2013.

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22 comments on “A Steel Ship and Iron Men – Catastrophic Failure and Courage on USS IWO JIMA (LPH 2)

  1. REINALDO
    December 8, 2012

    SORRY TO HEAR THE LOSS OF FINES SAILORS AT SEA JUST DOING THEIR JOB TO PROTECT US AT HOME,I WAS A BOILER TECHNICIAN ABOARD THE USS RANGER CV-61 IN 1983 WHEN WE LOST SIX FINE SAILORS IN 4MMR DUE MAJOR FUEL LEAK,I ALWAYS LOOK BACK AT THOSE BTS AMD MMS THAT PERISHED FOR NO REASON.WORK THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN DONE PRIOR TO DEPLOYMENT AND THE SCHEDULE OVERHAUL ,I ENDED MY NAVAL CAREER CAUSE OF THAT INCIDENT LEFT THE SHIP THAT NOVEMBER AND RETURN HOME,LATER I HEARD THE MORAL WAS DOWN IN ENGINEERING DUE TO FAULTY VALVES AND MACHINERY,THAT ONE REASON WHY I STAYED ON THE CHECK LEVEL JUST TO LOOK OUT FOR ANY SAFETY ISSUES I WAS CAUTION AT ALL TIMES,

  2. BTCM
    December 11, 2012

    Very well said, “Once a space filled with engineering wonders – where man-created and-harnessed thermal energy and powered a ship – was now a furnace of devastation.” I came in the Navy in 1987 as a BT and I’m currently still an active duty Navy Pit snipe steaming, maintaining and repairing main propulsion boilers. Every time I walk into a plant I look up at the “main steam lines” and remind myself that we have to be ready from all aspects.

  3. Andrew Lang
    April 8, 2013

    I served aboard three steam ship during my 12 year career with the US Navy. I always recognized the serious nature of the job, and took my responsibilities as such. I still run a steam plant 18 years after leaving the service. The responsibility is still the same. But it is very difficult to get younger employees to respect the nature of this job. Everyday you work around a power boiler your life is in the hands of anyone and everyone who ever work on, or maintained it. It grows more difficult as the availability of Naval trained steam propulsion engineers has been reduced to almost nothing. This type of accident is completely avoidable as your article states. Tragic loss of life due to complacent behavior.

  4. Terry Rasmussen
    May 27, 2013

    I only became aware of this tradegy recently. I served with LT Snyder on his first sea tour onboard the USS Briscoe. I will never forget his smile…it was contagious. I read in the JAG report that John waved off his shipmate to protect him and when he finally was out of the fireroom he was most concerned with the well being of his shipmates. I would have expected nothing else. That is who John was. Fare winds and following seas my friend!

  5. Michael Jensen
    December 18, 2013

    I just want to say thank you for such a detailed account of what happened on the Iwo. I served aboard her 88/92. BT3 David A. Gilliland and I were close shipmates. He was an awesome friend and exceptional SAILOR. That horrific day he and I and a few others were playing spades on the aft mess deck. It was about five in the morning. I was in charge of the team who was responsible for pulling in line #7. Dave was not on watch that day, but another shipmate of his was and asked Dave if he would releave him for a much needed break, he agreed, and it was about 6:30 am. He headed down to the boiler room, doors to boiler room were located within the aft mess deck. As he opened and entered, I then headed to line 7. I wouldn’t of believed that that would be the last time I would have ever of had the pleasure of knowing such a fine, dedicated man.

    • timothycummings
      December 18, 2013

      Michael,

      Thank you for your comments, and especially the memories of your shipmates.

      I have heard from several men who were onboard that day. Their comments, and yours, gives deeper meaning to what happened. When I update the case study or present it to an audience, the valued feedback I have received is essential to the retelling of the mistakes, and so importantly, the courage of several sailors on the morning of 10 OCT 90.

      Thank you for your service.

      Tim

  6. Ed Walters
    February 14, 2014

    Thank you for putting together this detailed account of the accident. I was a new AD3 assigned to the AIMD department as ships company from 1989-1993. I was part of the lagging tiger team that was assisting the engineers remove the coverings from the pipes in preparation for the boiler work. The days prior to the incident I was working on number 2 boiler and had reported for duty that morning to the boiler room. BT1 Volden told me to go to department since they were not working on the boilers at the moment. After being dismissed I went to my work center where I was then directed to my line handler position. Being the typical Airedale, I detoured to the mess decks to get chow before they closed. I was pouring a glass of milk from the dispenser, which was right in front of the boiler room trunk, when I felt the first rumbling of the ship.
    At first I thought the shipyard tugs had hit us. When the second and more violent rumbling happened, the door to the boiler room opened and someone fell out of the door way. All the Marines on the forward mess deck had now stood up from their tables and were crowded at the forward bulkhead of the mess decks. During this time MS1 came out of the Mess Office and told us to evacuate the area as steam started spilling from the forward trunk. Sensing the panic and knowing something bad must be happening, I quickly ran to my work center and retrieved my GQ gear.
    As I was blousing my pant legs and donning my pisspot my supervisor asked what I was doing. I told him something bad had happened in the boiler room, which was punctuated by the GQ alarm sounding. My repair locker was 1-H and my casualty control station was the forward mess decks serving line starboard side. When my team and I reached our station we flaked out the hose and stood by for instructions. We were then recalled back to 1-H for reassignment. My new assignment was to report to the aft mess decks, but my path was to go through the hangar and down the starboard aft ladder trunk since the forward mess decks were considered too dangerous.
    On my way down the starboard aft ladder trunk is when I saw the first casualty of the incident. I could not make out who he was because he was wrapped in a blanket on the stretcher and all that was showing was his face. He was alive and trying to talk but he was gasping and staring blankly at me. His skin, lips and eyes had been bleached white, and skin was peeling from his face. I am still haunted by that moment and the futile words I said to him; you’re gonna make it, you’ll be alright. I don’t know if I had just watched too many war movies growing up or I was truly optimistic about his prognosis, but those were the only words that I could think too say to him at that time. I helped carry him to the casualty elevator where we turned him over to the medical personnel. After turning him over I reported to my next assignment on the aft mess decks.
    AVCM Romero was coordinating efforts at the aft mess decks station and he told us to sit tight. I told him we needed to get the rest of the guys out, to which he said “There is no one left to get. It is too hot to enter right now. Once it has been ventilated we will retrieve our shipmates.” The weight of the situation settled on all of use when he said that. I am not sure if the CHENG had heard AVCM Romero or if he had just truly felt the loss but he came around the corner yelling “Those are my boys. That mother fucker killed my boys. All for a fucking star.” He was distraught and was led away from the area by some kakis.
    Prior to our deployment to the Gulf our ship was scheduled for dry docks to get work done. During our transit to Moorehead city the CHENG made it a point to stop by each repair locker and tell everyone to take the training seriously. He stated we were overdue for some critical maintenance and he anticipated a serious malfunction within two months. He said we needed work done but the current crisis trumped our need for maintenance. I don’t know why his words stuck with me like they did but they proved prophetic since the #2 boiler accident happened two months later.
    After the CHENG was led away the rest of us just sat there in silence for what seemed an eternity. I am not sure how long we sat there before were finally given orders to retrieve our shipmates. We stood up and shuffled our way to the forward mess deck and down the trunk to the boiler room. As I entered the doorway my senses were assaulted with sights, sounds, and smells which still linger in my mind all these years.
    The boiler room was hauntingly serene. Absent were the sounds of machinery and whirring of the boilers. No one was yelling and there was no laughter or friendly banter. All was quite except for the faint sound of ventilation fans. Nothing like I had heard just moments before. No one was busily checking gauges or moving about. The only movement was from a sailor directing us to the places our shipmates lay. It looked like it had snowed and covered the entire room with a fine white powder. The smell was acrid and wet. It smelled like the dank basement of an old house that used an oil heater. That wet, musty, sharp smell of insulation that was wetted then heated. As I descended the steps I saw one of the advance team members in his thermal suit. It was a surreal scene; I was being motioned into wintered land by a man in a thermal suit. He motioned me and another to a spot where lay a fallen shipmate.
    I walked past the main fuel line which feed the boilers and saw a single boot sitting there. The advanced team member said that BT1 saved the ship by cutting off the fuel. I nodded in understanding that there was heroism in a time of chaos. As I went further I found duty. A shipmate had fallen through a section of floor grate and it was he who I needed to bring away from this winter hell. He looked peaceful, as if he had purposely pulled the grate up and sat in it. My counterpart and I loaded him onto a stretcher and forced his limbs into place with straps. A rope was lowered through the starboard aft escape scuttle for us to attach to the stretcher. We tied the rope to the stretcher and guided him up through the hatch and away from the frosted grave.
    After that the next thing I remember was walking back into my shop. The Marines in me shop just looked at me as I lit a cigarette with the other one I just lit. I slunk down on the cabinets in my shop and tried to process what had just happened. One of the Marines asked what had happened and all I could do was look at the skin on my coveralls and say “they’re all dead.” The days that followed are blurry, except for sleeping on the cat walks to escape the oppressive heat from being in a ship without power throughout, and working with the Acadia’s crew in the repair and cleanup efforts. I always remember the Ten as they live on with me in my thoughts and dreams.
    If anyone else from the Iwo that day reads this and knows the name of the MS1 the sailor who came out of the boiler room trunk, and the sailor brought up the starboard aft trunk please contact me with their names. I need to put names to the faces and hopefully put them to rest in my thoughts.

    • timothycummings
      February 16, 2014

      Ed,

      Thank you for sharing your memories. Even though I was out of the Navy by October 1990, I recall the day 2MS-7 let loose. The thoughts you carry are not carried alone.

      From my research, and much more importantly, thanks to emails from other crew members, I do know the names of the two fallen shipmates you have been looking for. My files on the Iwo Jima accident are in Texas and when I return from working in Louisiana, I will send their names to you.

      Bravo Zulu to you, your shipmates and Marines who responded on that dark day to lend those ten sailors a hand.

    • Doug Allen
      May 5, 2014

      AD3 Walters,

      Thanks for your service and memories.

      LT Allen
      Repair 1H Locker Leader

  7. Daniel Mercer
    May 25, 2014

    I remember this day very well. I was in the Marines with HMH-461. I worked in S-1 office we were the CO of Troops Units on board. Very Sad day.

    Corporal Daniel Mercer
    USMC 1988-1992

  8. William lemons
    May 25, 2014

    I to was onboard the Iwo at the time of this incident. I appreciate your dialogue as to what happened, however I find a fault in your reporting. Who was it that supposedly survived because he had only just set foot into the boiler room? I was on the forward mess deck when the situation occurred and only one person emerged from the boiler room. He was dead by the time he reached medical…he was unable to talk and his fireproof uniform had basically melted to his body. He had been the ONLY person to come out! Everyone died.

    • timothycummings
      May 26, 2014

      William,

      Thank you for your service.

      Five people escaped but only one lived: The Water King was waved off by the MPA as he stepped into the fireroom, as placed one foot inside the main space.

      LT Snyder, EM2 Lupatsky and BTFA Brooks ascended the ladder to the mess decks.

      BT2 Parker went up the escape trunk to the forward mess decks and walked to medical.

    • Dan Wilson
      July 15, 2014

      I was a corpsman attached to MWSS-274, embarked onboard IWO JIMA that day. While attending to casualties in medical, a young sailor presented there. I talked with him out in the passageway. He stated that he had entered the boiler room, and was told to leave. He was understandably upset, his face was dirty. He did not appear to be injured, other than a few minor facial insults . We were very busy, and did not examine him. He told me that he worked in that space, but was told to stay out that morning due to the possibility of a mishap. He later decided to join his shipmates, and that was why he had been there. My impression was that he experienced some exposure to the explosion. Thanks for writing this article. Those ten sailors deserve this story to be told.

      Dan ” Doc ” Wilson, HM2/USN

      • timothycummings
        July 15, 2014

        Thanks for your service, Doc. I appreciate your comments. Their stories do need to be told.

    • MS2 (SW) Kevin Smith
      November 11, 2014

      I was on the forward mess deck when I heard the boom and the ship shook. I thought that we were under attack. That was the most fear that I EVER felt in my life. I ran back towards the steam room exit door. Before I got there somebody burst out of the door. I knew him but right now I can’t remember his name. (I knew all those guys because we stayed in the same berthing and I visited the space regularly to work on my ESWS qualification). He was running in front of me while I was going to my GQ station. I will never forget hearing him scream ,”My chest is on fire! My chest is on fire!”

  9. Brian Hedrick
    October 13, 2014

    Thank you for your detailed account. I was a Marine on board that fateful day. The door to the boiler room had a picture of Freddy Kruegar painted on it. The images like hell in my mind since. I CANNOT WATCH THOSE MOvies anymore. HORRIBLE DAY. Horrible explosion. I STILL HAVE A HARD TIME BUYING THE FORIEGNERS excuse that the nuts were painted on. LIVES LOST. NEVER FORGET.

  10. Rob Anthony
    October 30, 2014

    Today is the anniversary of that fateful day. I was in that engine room getting some ESWS signatures for lightoff when the ship’s Bos’n paged me to the focsle. I dropped the anchors to slow and stop the ship and it was pucker factor 10. It wasn’t until after that i realized how close I had come to death, as well as the 30 man Tiger-team for lagging and cleanup.
    Deck and engineering didn’t mix much but I played Spades and Tonk with these guys…Miss you much, Heroes.

    BM1(SW) Rob Anthony 89-91

    • MS2 (SW) Kevin Smith
      November 11, 2014

      Hello Anthony

      I was stationed on the Mighty Iwo from 89-92. I will NEVER forget that day. I was also working on ESWS at time. I was in the space the day before getting training with Parker. I just happened to not go in the space that morning!

  11. jerry messier
    October 30, 2014

    Great job Tim, I was a BTC and steamed both 1200 and 600psi plants. I always had the utmost respect for my fellow snipes. Guys that paid the ultimate price trying to save a ship and shipmates without any hesitation in the face of danger. I retired in 1989 before this happened. Great job.

  12. Meritt Hutton
    October 31, 2014

    The Final Inspection:
    The sailor stood and faced his God which must always come to pass. He hoped his shoes were shining just as brightly as his brass.
    “Step forward now, you sailor, how shall I deal with you?” “Have you always turned the other cheek? To My Church have you been true?”
    The sailor squared his shoulders and said, “No, Lord, I guess I ain’t, ‘Cause those of us who carry guns can’t always be a saint.
    I’ve had to work most Sundays and at times my talk was tough, and sometimes I’ve been violent because the world is awfully rough.
    I’ve never passed a cry for help, though at times I shook with fear, and sometimes, God forgive me, I’ve wept unmanly tears.
    I know I don’t deserve a place among the people here; they never wanted me around except to calm their fears.
    If there’s a bunk for me in here, it needn’t be so grand; I’ve never expected nor had too much, so if you don’t, I understand.”
    There was a silence all around the throne where saints had often trod as the sailor waited quietly for the judgment of his God:
    “Step forward now, you sailor, you’ve borne your burdens well. Walk peacefully on Heaven’s streets; you’ve done your time in Hell.”

  13. Lee Wheeler
    November 5, 2014

    I was on mess duty that day on board the Iwo. Marine with HMH-461. I knew two of those that died that day, one very well. Got to know him on a working party one day a couple weeks prior. We used to play a lot of spades. I will never forget the smells, heat and the lack of visibility on the mess decks right after. Myself and another Marine helped get a couple of those who died that day up to the hangar. The heat was so intense it melted boots and clothes to their bodies. Still see it as if it was yesterday.

    Thank you for your research and for telling the rest of the story. This will help a lot of us better understand what happened that day. We never felt like we got the whole story. There was a lot of anger and animosity towards ship leadership after this.

    Semper Fi shipmates.

  14. Steven C. Covington
    November 12, 2014

    I was Machinist Mate First Class assigned to USS La Salle, AGF3, after engineroom being worked on by the same company, at that time. I had been stationed on different ship with BT1 Volden, if I recall correctly. We had a similar incident in 1979 on the USS Fort Snelling, (fortunately no injuries), on the main steam stop valve in aft engineroom .
    The part number for the black brass coated nuts was just one number different from the same size correct heat treated steel nuts…Many years earlier, there was an NIS investigation on my ship, as we had received several of the knives that the SEAL’s use; It was one digit off from the thrust bearing shoes for our main feed pump.

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