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Thanksgiving 1970 - Fire on the Canopus -  by Tom Courtien, Russ Christie and John Linville  Updated January 13, 2008.

Tom had just sent some info on the 1970 MUC to be placed on the web site so I asked him if he was also on board the Key in 1970 when it was tied along side the USS Canopus AS-34 in Holy Lock the night the Canopus caught fire.  Here is Tom's e-mail reply.

Yes, I remember that night well. I had the duty; I was in charge of the working party for baggage. We had just sent the baggage off to Preswick because you guys (blue crew) were taking over the next day. I was topside near AMR1 when the tender announced that there was a fire. When I told the topside watch to pass the word the below decks guys all thought it was a drill. I passed the word "I don't think so" because by then, all hell had broken loose.

We moved the Key over to the dry dock and moored there. It was interesting being sober and watching all the liberty section try to find us tied up to the dry dock. We had no brow and there was no direct access from the dry dock. Getting the drunks below and trying to tie up the boat became a challenge. Our A-Weps was really drunk and fell in the water with his liberty uniform on because he came up to my line (#1) and tried to start barking orders. He slipped and went into the drink. He was lucky not to be crushed between the boat and the dry dock; as he fell in on that side.  Go to the James K. Polk site. I believe they have some information there too.... Tom

Update added September 10, 2012 Submitted by Bob Lewis (Rosebud) MT2 SS Plankowner Gold 1965-1970

This is my best recollection of the men overboard on the FS Key while tying up to the drydock the night of the fire aboard the Canopus:

 I was on Launcher (LOS) watch when I first heard about the fire. A while later, the maneuvering watch was set and I went topside to #1 line where I was the senior enlisted man and in charge of #1 line. The boat threw off and/or cut the lines and we got underway with the EPM I think; I don't remember any tugs but there may have been one to guide us across the Loch to the drydock. We reached the drydock and there must have been someone on the drydock to put the loop of #1 line on the drydock cleat. About that time the officer in charge was coming down toward #1 line and I told someone (may have been Tom Courtein) to try and get him to stay back toward #2 line because it was pretty dark forward and the current seemed to be running around 5 knots or so and the water was probably close to 40 degrees or so. Instead the officer continued forward and as we were trying to double up the line, he fell overboard. I don't remember seeing him fall, but I heard the splash and since he fell aft of #1 line, I made a quick decision to go into the water and by keeping one arm around the singled line was able to get the officer over to the side of the boat where he was hoisted aboard by the rest of my line handlers and then I was also pulled back aboard the boat. I think the officer's name was Tom Turner (asst eng) but I am not sure. It was not the AWEPS from my memory. Having grown up on various rivers and ditches down south, I knew that I had to act fast to keep the officer from being swept forward and out of our reach. Two man overboard alarms were sounded that night in fairly rapid succession; one for the officer and one for me. After we secured the maneuvering watch, Mr Turner came into the missile compartment, shook my hand, and thanked me for helping to bring him back aboard the Key. And as Paul Harvey used to say "That is the rest of the story".

I have tried to locate the actual logs of that nite, OOD log or topside log, to see the actual "official" account but the best I have been able to do is find the instructions for requesting the info from Naval Archives. If anyone would like to supply info, my email address is rosebudbonky@hotmail.com....

From the James K Polk web site:  Around Thanksgiving, 1970: Fire breaks out in a baggage storeroom in the stern of the submarine tender USS Canopus (AS-34) while it is in the Holy Loch, Scotland. The Daily Telegraph newspaper reports that it was carrying nuclear-armed missiles and that two U.S. nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, the Francis Scott Key (SSBN-657) and James K. Polk (SSBN-645), were moored alongside. The Francis Scott Key cast off, but the Polk remained alongside. U.S. naval authorities in Holy Loch and London dismiss any suggestion that a nuclear explosion aboard the Canopus could have occurred or that "even a remote danger" from missiles or other materials existed. "We have drills and precautions which rule out any danger whatsoever," the London spokesman says. There are precautions against every eventuality in Holy Loch." The fire was brought under control after four hours. Three men were killed and the cause of the fire was unknown.  U.S. Navy documents record that "damage was extensive in the small area in which the fire was contained," but "repairs were effected on site and Canopus was never 'off the line'".

Russ Christie:  Here is how I remember that night.  I believe it was Thanksgiving evening about 8pm-ish.  The Canopus had a skeleton crew of mostly junior personnel on board as most of the senior guys were on the beach enjoying the Thanksgiving holiday.  I was in sub crew berthing as the gold crew still had the boat.  We were to have change of command the next morning.  We all smelled a light wiff of smoke.  Shortly thereafter the fire alarm was sounded saying FIRE on Level ??, Frame???.  As this was only my second patrol, I had no idea where they were talking about.  One of the guys that had been stationed aboard the tender said that it was quite a ways away from us, so we stayed in berthing for awhile. 

About 15 minutes passed and the smoke smell was getting stronger.  One of our officers, I think it was Ron Kimmel, the Weapons Officer, came into sub berthing and said the fire was getting worse and they wanted the sub crew to move topside to the bow and muster there.  We went topside.  Some of the more experienced weapons guys grabbed their gear and went down to the Key.  I'm sure several others did the same thing.  I went to the bow with most of the crew.  I'd guess there were about 80 of us out there.  Then someone came up and asked if there were any experienced former tender people among us.  Several guys came forward and went off to fight the fire.  They only wanted people that knew their way around that ship.  The next thing we knew all the lights went out and it became very dark.  Cars began lining up on the shore with their headlights pointing towards us and that was the only light.  The decision came down to cast off the subs that were tied up next to the Canopus.  If I remember right, the Key was on the starboard side and the Polk was on the port side.  I only know what happened to the Key.  (note: I read on the Polk's web site that they stayed tied up the whole time with a fire hose pouring water onto the hot side of the tender.) The lines from the Key were tossed into the bay and the power cable was cut or disconnected.  There were no tugs near us as yet so the Key began to drift away from the tender.  It drifted towards shore and we thought it was going to run aground when a tug finally arrived and snared the Key and took it over to the floating dry dock and tied her there.  Meanwhile, back on the Canopus the fire was still out of control.  Word now came to us that the fire was getting near the missile storage area and if that happened they were going to flood the missile compartment which would cause the ship to to break in half.  We began to plot how we were going to get off the ship if that happened.  None of us wanted to go into that freezing water as we knew we would never make it to shore.  As we began looking for life rafts, lifejackets etc, the word came that the fire was now under control but that there had been three casualties.  Two men in the brig and their marine guard had died.  Our corpsman and a couple of others went to assist in the body recovery.  The fire had started in the chiefs baggage storage area.  No one got much sleep that night and we were never happier to assume command of the Key and get off that tender.  Home sweet home.

01/18/07 - received this e-mail from John Linville MM1 67 - 71 Gold Crew regarding his memories of the Canopus fire:

"Wow, found the website today and was looking at memories of the fire.  I was in engine room.  I remember we were told not to go aboard the Canopus , but we piled spare OBAs and canisters at the base of the brow for them.  I remember the confusion on the tender, smoke of the weather deck and lots of guys running around.  We had a big welding machine aft on deck.  We kept calling for someone on the tender to open the breaker on it.  Finally the chief said just get rid of it so we pushed it overboard.  I have never seen a sight like that, a fully energized 480 volt welder into salt water.  Killed all those scupper suckers for 100 foot around the impact area.  If I remember right we cut the mooring lines down on the boat and went up river with the EPM to tie off on the floating drydock.  I think the captain wanted as much distance between us and the tender as he could get with the boat being in overhaul and not ready for sea.  As I remember afterwards, they told us the fire got to within a compartment of the torpedo storage locker.  Would have really “dredged” the Loch had it been breached. "

 

New material added September 8, 2007

 

I was browsing the web when I came across these newspaper articles on the USS Canopus web site describing the events of November 29, 1970.  The Key was tied up next to the Canopus when a fire broke out deep within the Canopus.  It was a holiday weekend so the Canopus did not have a very senior crew aboard to fight the fire.  Three guys in the brig died.  Now at least we know their names.  The Blue crew was in the sub berthing area of the Canopus and the Gold crew still had the boat.  Several of us have told our version of what happened that night in the Sea Stories area of this web site.  I know my shipmates from both crews will read with great interest these articles from that frightening night long ago.

 

The picture shows a sub along side the Canopus the day after the fire.  It is either the Key or the Polk.

 

 

       

Jim Keach 68 - 71 E-Div Blue Crew sent in these newspaper articles from Dunoon, Scotland regarding the fire.

 

 

 

E-mail received from John Linville on 9/8/2007 regarding the Canopus fire.

Interesting to see that newspaper article about the Canopus fire.  I had never seen any published accounts.  As usual the Navy was spinning the story to make it seem they had full control of the situation.  Not my recollection!  The guard died trying to free prisoners in the brig because he put on a Mark Five gas mask in his panic and died of smoke inhalation.  As I said before our CO forbade anyone going up on the tender as he was aware of the panic and confusion up there.  We piled OBAs by the bottom of the brow for the tender to get if they needed them.

I like the remark about moving the Key as if it was a Navy decision.  That was strictly a decision by our CO.  We couldn’t get anyone to cast off our lines from the tender.  So we cut the lines ourselves, I believe with fire axes.  Just total chaos up on the tender.  I remember hearing stories of E-8s and E-9s, on tender or shore duty so long they couldn’t get an OBA on or started.  We were told the fire got within two bulkheads of the torpedo warhead storage locker.  Had it gotten there, the Loch would be a lot deeper today.  I wonder if the Brits, at any level of government, ever got the true story.  “No danger to persons or property outside the ship” my butt!

As far as the picture the day after the fire, that must be the Polk as I believe we were still tied to the ARDM where we went on the EPM during the fire.