SAIGON -- Flaming jet fuel ravaged the decks of the carrier Forrestal today and killed at least 26 American officers and men in the second sea fire tragedy of the Vietnam war.
The four-hour holocaust was unleashed when a warplanes belly tank ruptured. It trapped pilots in their cockpits and detonated bombs and rockets primed for momentary use against North Vietnam.
Some sailors were still feared missing in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin after leaping from the red-hot flight deck.
At least 29 multi-million dollar warplanes were destroyed on the 76,000-ton carrier which had 4,400 officers and men aboard.
Even more damaging to the American war effort would be the loss of pilots in the tragedy. The escalating air war has taken its toll in airmen downed over North Vietnam and there has been a dearth of pilot recruits to the point where veterans are being urged to stay on for another tour.
While some crewmen flung themselves into the sea to escape the inferno, others dashed through flames to save 2,500 pound bombs from exploding.
"In the hour that followed the start of the fire I saw more heroic instances than I could count, said Rear Adm, Harvey P. Lanham, commander of Carrier Division Two aboard the Forrestal.
He said sailors and crewmen hurled bombs, flaming fuel tanks and debris from jets into the Golf of Tonkin 150 miles off the North Vietnamese coast where the 12-year-old carrier had been launching around-the- clock strikes against vital Communist targets.
The fire erupted at 10:53 a.m. (10:53 p.m. EDT Friday) while the Forrestal was swinging into a 35 mile per hour wind in preparation for launching a wave of its 60 to 90 jets toward North Vietnam.
A jet clustered among others awaiting takeoff on the top-level 4.1 acre flight deck burst its belly tank. The fuel flowed down a ramp for the steam catapults used to launch the warplanes and was ignited by the heat.
Officials said the wind-whipped flames roared into a holocaust in seconds, fully engulfing loaded planes with pilots at the controls and sloshing down to the hangar deck below where scores of other jets were parked wingtip to wingtip.
Sailors in asbestos suits plunged through the walls of fire to bring the blaze on the flight deck under control within 90 minutes. The fire below decks w as contained in about four hours but still licked tauntingly in some parts of the 1,039-foot flattop. Rushing to the Forrestals side to help rescue survivors was the carrier Oriskany, ravaged by a fire and explosions in the same Gulf of Tonkin last October.
The Oriskany fire killed 43 pilot-officers and injured 16 others. The Oriskany returned to the gulf July 14. The Forrestal had joined it there only four days ago.