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- The Virginian-Pilot
© July 28, 2007
Three months before giving birth to her son in 1967, Lillie Childress had a dream.
She said she dreamed that a bomb had hit the Forrestal, a Norfolk-based aircraft carrier operating off the coast of North Vietnam with her husband on board.
The same day her child arrived, a missile hanging under the wing of a fighter jet accidentally launched, causing a massive fire on the flight deck that killed 134 sailors and wounded another 67.
"You could feel the ship tremble," said her husband, Joe Childress, who lives in Palmyra.
On Friday, the couple joined more than 100 people at a ceremony at Norfolk Naval Station's Farrier Fire Fighting Facility to mark the 40th anniversary of the fire. Gerald W. Farrier was a Navy firefighter on board the Forrestal who died in the fire.
On display was a row of 134 American flags, each tagged with the name of a sailor who died. As their names were read, some in the audience wiped away tears.
The event was organized by the Forrestal Association, a 2,600-member group of sailors who served on the ship during its 37 years of active service. The association holds an annual ceremony here, but it was about twice its usual size this year, said Bob Kohler, vice president.
On July 29, 1967, a missile was accidentally fired from an F-4 Phantom into an A-4 Skyhawk minutes before a scheduled bombing run.
The impact ruptured the Skyhawk's fuel tank and the leaking fuel caught fire. A 1,000- pound bomb on the Skyhawk exploded, igniting other bombs nearby.
It was the biggest explosion on the deck of a U.S. carrier since World War II.
Sen. John McCain, then a lieutenant commander and now a Republican presidential candidate, was the pilot in the Skyhawk.
He barely escaped.
Childress was a yeoman with the air wing on the Forrestal. He was bunking with the airmen, but he switched compartments after Kohler - who was an officer - told him there were openings elsewhere on the ship.
"I got to thinking, 'This man probably saved my life,'" Childress said, noting that the air wing's bunks were ravaged by the fire. "I knew the majority of the people who were killed."
Tommy Wimberly was in the cockpit of a Phantom ahead of the explosion.
His plane was still chained to the deck when the fire started, and a crewman was able to untie them amid the chaos so Wimberly could taxi to safety.
"The shock was severe," Wimberly recalled. "It rattled my teeth and my knees began to shake so badly that my feet did a dance on the floor of the cockpit."
Mike Cherney, (757) 446-2363, firstname.lastname@example.org
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