1960: USS Constellation Catches Fire at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

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Smoke rises from the fire aboard the navy aircraft carrier USS Constellation at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on the East River in New York, Dec. 19, 1960.

December of 1960 was a particularly harrowing and gruesome month for New York, particularly for the neighborhoods surrounding Park Slope. On December 19th the USS Constellation (CV-64), a naval aircraft supercarrier caught on fire, claiming the lives of 50 civilian workers and injuring as many as 330 others. This incident occurred only three days after a freak mid air collision of two airplanes over Park Slope, killing 128 passengers and 6 people on the ground. One plane crash-landed in Park Slope and the other in Staten Island. 

Firefighters barely had time to catch their breath when the USS Constellation tragedy occurred, just two miles away. According to a December 24th article in the New York Times, the fire began with an ill-fated series of events:

The valve assembly was knocked out of the tank by an 1,800-pound steel plate resting on a wooden pallet. The pallet was hit by a heavy steel trash bin that had been nudged by a fork-lift truck. The fuel gushed from the tank and ran through work holes in the steel flooring to decks below, on one of which it came in contact with 'hot work'- either a welding or cutting torch or steel that was hot from such work.

Wooden construction scaffolding accelerated the blaze, and the ship appeared to start sinking as water was increasingly pumped in to combat the flames. Workers were trapped below deck in air tight compartments for hours until firefighters could rescue them - entering from a hole cut in the hull of the ship. Most who perished suffocated from the poisonous fumes.

On this day, the WNYC mobile unit was reporting live from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In a series of “beeper” telephone calls1, a reporter describes the scene as the Fire Department battled for 17 hours to extinguish the blaze, in spite of snowfall above and smoke billowing below through cavernous steel passageways.  

Prior to the fire, the Pentagon planned to sail the USS Constellation to the Pacific Ocean by mid-1961 as part of a Cold War strategy to have three carriers there in operation at all times, with one exclusively holding planes designed to carry nuclear weapons.

This especially challenging month was not yet over for firefighters, who were called to extinguish an 8 alarm fire across two Williamsburg lumber yards and a four alarm fire at a Coney Island gas station. As a December 23rd article in the New York Times describes: 

Yesterday's blazes were the latest of a series of tests for the city's 12,000 firemen and officers in the two weeks that began with the pre-winter blizzard of December 11th and 12th. Since that time the firefighters have had to grapple with the worst air catastrophe in history; the fire on the carrier Constellation; a dozen other multiple-alarm blazes and numbing cold and roadways made virtually impassable by snow and ice.

 

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

WNYC archives id: 150511
Municipal archives id: LT9171


[1] The intermittent 'beep-tone' in the recording is due to long standing Federal Communications Commission rules that required journalists to notify a person that their telephone conversation is being recorded. 

Haberman, Clyde, "Recalling a Brooklyn Disaster Otherwise Forgotten," New York Times, December 20th, 2010