Survivors Recall Fatal Blast in 1954 That Shook Carrier; USS Bennington Explosion Was One of Navy's Worst Peacetime Accidents

Article excerpt

Byline: BETH KORMANIK, The Times-Union

Roy Stoutamire hurried through a breakfast, finishing before his six buddies aboard the USS Bennington.

The Jacksonville resident, an airman in the gasoline fueling division, hustled on the deck to top off the tanks of planes ready to depart the aircraft carrier sailing about 75 miles outside of Newport, R.I.

Moments later, two explosions sounded and his breakfast companions were dead.

Fifty years ago today, a hydraulic catapult explosion and fire killed 103 officers and crew and injured more than 200 others. It was one of the worst peacetime accidents in the Navy's history.

Surviving crew members plan to gather today in Newport's Fort Adams State Park to dedicate a memorial to the accident.

Stoutamire, 73, will remember the day from his home in Avondale, going over photos and newspaper clippings from The Times-Union and Boston and Providence, R.I., newspapers. He said he thinks about the accident just once a year around this time.

"It shook," he said, describing the ship. "I'd seen explosions before, but nothing like this."

Stoutamire, then 23, had a wife in Jacksonville and the couple were expecting their first child, a daughter. He had been with the ship for two years and was preparing to sail on a six-month Mediterranean cruise.

After the explosions, Stoutamire returned below deck to find out what happened. He was put to work searching for dead and injured crew. They found one man, alive, cowering in a shower. The sturdy walls had kept him alive but the man was scared to leave, Stoutamire recalled.

"We spent hours and hours that night looking for people who might be injured or dead," he said.

Searchers came out from the ship's belly covered in soot and oil. Heat from the explosion melted fluorescent lights so they dripped like icicles, Stoutamire said.

He had to wait 14 hours to call his wife and sister-in-law in Jacksonville to let them know he was unharmed, or "just lucky," as he says now.

James McCormack of Jacksonville may have been luckier. Before the accident,

McCormack, a lieutenant junior grade with a photo reconnaissance detachment aboard the Bennington, was sent on a long winter deployment to the Pacific. …

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