04/10/09 1594 W, 3 I - + 22 - 18 Morehead City Ship Explosion, 1961 (Updated)

On September 26, 1961, at approximately 3:10 p.m., the USNS Potomac arrived an an aviation fuel terminal in Morehead City. The facility was located on Radio Island, across the Newport River channel from the state port. The 15,626-ton, 593-foot, civilian-manned T-5 tanker was anchored with its bow pointing north, toward the railroad and highway bridges that connected the island and mainland.

About 5:20 p.m., the Potomac began discharging its 101,000 gallons of cargo, which consisted of aviation gasoline and JP-5 jet fuel. Around 6:35 p.m., gasoline also started flowing overboard. The ship's port sea suction value was open, and fuel was flowing from it. The gasoline leaked into the channel, and spread in the direction of the bridges.

At approximately 6:45 p.m., a civilian port employee was parked on the bridge, waiting with other cars while a tug boat passed under the open drawbridge. He smelled the strong odor of a petroleum product. His car was parked about halfway between the open span, and the island. About the same time, the ship's Chief Engineer and Second Asst. Engineer were ashore at the aviation terminal, near the first storage tank. They smelled an usually strong odor of gasoline.

Meanwhile, three men in a 14-foot wooden boat were fishing near the railroad bridge. They also smelled the leaking fuel, that was now floating on the river's surface. As their eyes started burning and their breathing became difficult from the fumes, they untied their boat and headed under the trestle. As they approached the highway bridge, the boat struck a wire cable hanging in the water. The collision stopped their boat, which contained a lighted gasoline lantern in the bottom of the craft. There was a flash, and then a fire started. The three men jumped into the water, and were carried by the tide back to the railroad bridge. Each escaped safely.

The fire on the fishing boat occurred about 6:50 p.m. The flames ignited the gas in the water. In a matter of seconds, blue flames spread some 500 yards and reached the tanker. Within minutes, the bow section of the ship was enveloped in flames.

Having seen the flames spreading on the water, the ship's Engineer and Second Asst. Engineer boarded the vessel, and went straight to the engine room. The general alarm sounded as the two reached the engine room. With the watch personnel, they prepared to get the Potomac moving. The vessel's fire pump was started, and ventilation fans were secured. With the engine turning 60 RPM astern, the ship was rocked by a terrific jolt.

At 6:55 p.m., vapors in the forward empty tanks ignited, causing the first of two violent explosions. This intensified the fire aboard the ship. About ten minutes later, a second explosion occurred as vapors in the aft tanks ignited. The explosions sent burning gas and jet fuel into the water. Black smoke and boiling flames shot more than 1,000 feet into the dusk sky. The force of the explosion bent a warehouse at the nearby State Port Terminals, and even knocked people from chairs at the Morehead City police station two miles to the west. Click to enlarge:

Carteret County History Place photo

Twenty of the 44 crewmen were aboard at the time of the explosion. On orders of the skipper, they abandoned ship using the gangplank, or by leaping into the water. One crew member was killed, a seaman later found floating fully clothed and wearing a life preserver. The second crew member, the Radio Officer, who had been directly above the fire in the wheelhouse, was never found. Another 24 seamen were injured, as were three fisherman who received first- and second-degree burns from the flaming fuel that shot several hundred yards by the explosion.

Seven crew members were rescued by the crew of the charter fishing boat Bonnie Too. It braved the blaze, came in close to the stern, and fished the men from the water. The seven were taken to the Morehead City waterfront, to an ambulance waiting by Capt. Bill's. Five other crew members were rescued by a 30-foot Coast Guard patrol boat from nearby Fort Macon. Helicopters soon also circled the scene, looking for survivors.

The four men aboard the Bonnie Too would receive many awards and letters of commendation, including the Andrew Carnegie Endowment Medal. The boat's captain also received the Coast Guard Silver Medal of Heroism. The operator of the Coast Guard patrol boat was also recognized by the Coast Guard for heroism in the face of hazardous conditions.

For almost an hour, the Potomac's whistle blew, as it burned. Click to enlarge:


Other vessels were threatened by the burning fuel, which was carried by the tide and the current. One vessel, an asphalt carrier, was docked at the port, but refused permission to depart, due to the hazard. The railroad bridge also caught fire several times, and 50 feet of a nearby pier was burned.

An employee of the Beaufort & Morehead Railway, which operated a small railroad line between the towns, braved the danger to tow several loaded tank cars to safety. When he returned with locomotive for a second set, he was stopped by police.

The port was soon closed to shipping, though the harbor was filling with fire and rescue vessels. They included the Coast Guard cutter Chilula and a Navy destroyer. Outside the harbor, other ships arrived and stood by, including the aircraft carrier Valley Forge, and two Navy Landing Ship Docks (LSDs).

The Chilulua arrived at 12:03 a.m., and found heavy fire forward of the midships, and considerable fire in the stern. The cutter approached as close as possible, with their fire hoses spraying over the side, fighting the fire on the water adjacent to the Potomac. The Chilulua was designated "on scene command" continued its firefighting efforts through the morning. They made several passes along the tanker, with only five to eight feet separating the ships.

Between 4:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m., small boats from the USS Valley Forge, the USS Lindenwald, and USS Terrebonne Parish assisted the Chilula. Fire crews from the various vessels boarded the Chilula, which returned to the Potomac and applied blankets of foam to the midship and stern sections. At 7:40 a.m., a number of Navy units in small boats left the port terminal, to extinguish the many small fires on the water.

Newspapers reported that more than 3,000 civilian and military firefighters from across eastern North Carolina responded to the scene. Some of the firefighters were from fire departments nearly 200 miles away. Ashore, crews worked to prevent the ship and its burning contents from spreading to the nearby fuel storage tanks. When "heavy firefighting equipment" from Cherry Point Marine Air Station in Havelock arrived, foam was then applied. Camp Lejune in Jacksonville also sent firefighting equipment.

Over 10 million gallons of aviation fuel was stored on Radio Island, and the three-story high tanks were about 400 yards from the ship. Nearly 5 million gallons of water were applied to the tanks during the first 24 hours of the incident.

As flames leapt hundreds of feet into the air, the column of smoke could be seen from as far away as New Bern. Within a couple hours, the ship had settled into 20 feet of water. Split in two sections, the wreckage was described as a "red hot hunk of steel."

Carteret County News-Times photo  

Residents of Morehead City feared the fire would spread to the waterfront. The Morehead City-Beaufort causeway was evacuated, with the National Guard patrolling the area and helping to direct traffic.

On Wednesday, Sept. 27, the tanker and surrounding fuel were still burning. Military personnel and fire equipment continued to keep the flames controlled with foam. On the river, when the flaming fuel began to spread, crews climbed back into their boat and pushed the burning slick back with foam. Though the fire was no longer seen as a threat to the nearby storage tanks, crews resumed spraying them that night.

By Friday, Sept. 29, crews had pulled their boats alongside the partly sunken tanker, and dumped foam on the remaining flames. The port was opened on a limited basis.

The wreckage was still burning on Saturday, Sep. 30, and was still considered a threat. The strong odor of gasoline fumes spread through the area, as oil floated on the river. Fire danger was highest during the afternoon flood time. The highway bridge was closed between 2 and 3 p.m. Warnings were issued against open flames or smoking in the port area, or near the bridge.

The ship had been sufficiently cooled, however, to allow boarding. Navy and Coast Guard officials went aboard her stern, and examined the engine and other equipment.

Salvage operations started Sunday morning, Oct. 1, though some fires still burned. The ship and her cargo were considered a total loss. The aviation terminal doc facilities were also extensively damaged by the fire. The fire was finally considered extinguished at 4:35 p.m. that day.

The ship's blackened stern sat in the channel for a year, until it was finally towed away in October 1963. It was transported to Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, where it was dry-docked. The stern was rebuilt and became part of the tanker Shenandoah.

The bow of the burned ship remained in the Morehead City harbor until April 1963.


Let’s consider the above narrative a draft version. I’ll do another pass at another time.
Legeros - 04/04/09 - 16:41

Related documentation, that we’ll incorporate into the revised version of this story.

USCG medal awarded to Howard Robinson Jones, for heroic actions. http://www.uscg.mil/history/awards/CGMed.. (scroll to bottom of apge)

Marine Board of Investigation report of incident. http://www.uscg.mil/hq/cg5/docs/boards/p..

Plus this commemorative story, from the Carteret County News-Times: http://www.carteretnewstimes.com/article..
Legeros - 04/04/09 - 22:05

Second, better version posted. Might need one more pass.
Legeros - 04/10/09 - 17:09

If you haven’t seen it, the “Images of America” book about Morehead City has some really good photos of this event, both that night and the following days.
Olson - 04/15/09 - 22:57

The party boat which helped in the rescue of ship personel was the Bunnie Too, the captain also named a daughter bunnie.
James L. Freeman (Email) - 01/07/12 - 17:10

i was there on radio island when she blew – we marines were waiting for the USS Lindenwald LSD-6 to come in to pick us up for a caribbean cruise- we saw several people get blown off the ship when they ordered us to grab whatever vehicles we could drive and start evacuation of Moorehead City- After they were able to pull the ship away from the dock our sip came in and we loaded up our gear to cruise off- as we passed the still smoking ship we marines stood on the port deck and saluted her as we passed- I’ll never forget this- ed snyder 2nd comm/2nd shore party/ 2nd FMF
ed snyder (Email) - 01/23/14 - 11:45

My fathers Tugboat, helped to tow her away from the MHC Port. I lived on Shackleford Street.
CAROLYN W JUBB - 06/16/18 - 15:01

My wife, a child and inside her home at the time that was over 4 kilometers away, remembers being shaken by the explosion. Here’s a link to photos of the ship burning: https://goo.gl/8R5hiZ
Charles Leeuwenburg (Email) - 01/04/19 - 11:24

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