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BT1 Andrew Gallagher Risked His Life to Save Others Aboard USS Belknap

An interview with BT1 Andrew Gallagher, USN (Ret.)


Lundquist: What happened in your space?

Gallagher: Well this time here, I saw it getting black at the top and stuff coming down. And I said, “We lost the stacks.” I called main control, I said, “Listen, I can’t save it. I’m gonna evacuate the space. I’m gonna secure from topside.” At first he said, “Can you hold it?” And I said, “I have no stacks!” So he said, “Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!”

And so, I told everybody, “Evacuate the space.”


Lundquist: Did you shut down the plant?

Gallagher: I went over and secured the fuel service pump. Pat McAloon pulled the quick-closing valve, and my guys – McAloon and W. Harmon – ran into the escape hatch. I jumped in the escape hatch and I looked up and saw there were two people up ahead of me, going up the hatch. I knew I had three on watch with me. So I turned around, went back into the space, and there were flames coming out of the ventilation system. I was standing by the shaft and I looked up and I saw D. Minkler. He was mesmerized by these flames coming out of the ventilation system. I knew that I wasn’t going to get back into the escape hatch, and I had to go get him, because I was expecting the boiler to flareback, which is what normally happens when you lose all your draft. So I look up, and I see Minkler – he’s the junior guy on watch, he’d only been on the ship about two months. So I ran up to get him. I yelled for him but he wasn’t paying attention, he was just standing there staring at the flames. As I was running across the plant to get him, my pants caught on fire. I knew I wasn’t going to make it back to the escape hatch, so I pushed him up the steps. We were about three quarters of the way up the steps and all of a sudden “WHOOOOM,” and the next thing I know I’m flying over him, made a right hand turn from being tossed around by the door and by the jam way, and I landed down, and I looked up and he was in front of me. My collarbone was broken. I picked him up and pushed him, and I said, “Go! Get out of here!” I was turning around and made the left hand turn going to the starboard side of the ship where I was going to secure the main stop and auxiliary stop valves. I knew where the valves were, I knew how many times I had to turn them to make sure everything was done, but I never made it there. I never made it to that point. There was another explosion, and it knocked me down on my knees. I was looking at myself and all I had on was the front of my shirt, my belt, and my boots, and the skin from my hands was hanging down. I thought, “Okay, I gotta get up. I gotta get out of here.” And the smoke was brown where I was at, and it was really thick up top.

And this… Ned, I don’t know how this happens and you’re probably one of the four or five people I’ve told this to, but I was yelling, “I need some help! I need some help!” I was lying there, reaching up, and all I felt was jagged metal. I couldn’t feel my way along the wall. I said, “Please, somebody help me.”

That’s when I had my, I guess you could say “divine intervention,” with somebody who was in front of me. I felt a hand on my shoulder and he said, “Stand up. I’ll get you out of here.” I said, “Okay.” It was a person wearing brown shoes and khakis. I couldn’t see the rest of him. And we went up, we made a right hand turn going up the port side of the ship. He was talking very calmly, and he said, “Watch your step, we’re going through the gangway.” The jam was there.

I said, “Okay,” so I put my hands on the jam way, got over and I walked out four or five steps. I remember looking down into the fire room and it was glowing. And then I took two more steps, then I turned around, there was nobody there. There was absolutely nobody there. And I turned to the right, because that’s where DC central was, and there was nobody in there. So it was just me at that point on.


BT2 Andrew T. Gallagher


Lundquist: It was your guardian angel.

Gallagher: It had to have been. I can’t explain it, I’m not a very religious person, but it was, there was an entity there that helped me get out of that real thick, thick smoke. And I started to walk up the steps, the ladder going into the ward room, and then I went to make a turn, there was a door that went out to the quarter deck, but there was a guy there standing and, again, I couldn’t see him but he was wearing khakis and he was saying, “You can’t get out this way. You can’t get out this way,” and he had the door opened about this far and you could see a river of flames. So I walked athwartships through the ward room, and something came through the ward room ceiling and landed on top of the ward room table. The table flipped, and then I got outside. I’m amidships, on the starboard side. I felt the cold air.

I started to walk up forward, and somebody came up to me and touched me and skin fell off. And then there was two or three other people who had some corpsman training. Since the Navy was cutting back after the war, people were given some other options. And these Sailors had medical training. They got a hold of me and put me on a stretcher and they started treating me there, but there was no morphine.

My best friend during the time helped me when I was out in the focsle. He says he has nightmares quite often about what I looked like. He told me, “You were one ugly dude.”


Lundquist: That is traumatic for someone. Especially someone who wants to do something, but isn’t sure how best to help you.

Gallagher: That’s what he told me. He knew I was in a lot of pain, and they didn’t have any morphine to give us, and he said, “There was nothing I could do except just sit there with you.” I said, “I imagine that was okay.” Because all the time I was laying in the focsle, I was thinking, “Man, it’s cold out.” And I’d be watching those people up on the focsle fighting the fire, and hearing all the commands being given out, and nobody was panicking. Everyone was responding like professionals. As I’m laying there, they’re talking to me. “What was going on? What happened? What did I see? Did I see anybody? Was there anybody hurt?” And I said, “Far as I know, everybody that worked for me got out.” Which they did. And I think that’s one of the things that kept me sane through the long years of going through this, that everybody I had, none of them got burned. Nobody got injured. Nobody had smoke inhalation. I was the only one that got hurt.


Lundquist: What about the other fire room?

Gallagher: They evacuated the forward fire room, and they evacuated main control.


Lundquist: Did they manage to shut off the, any of the valves?

Gallagher: They just evacuated space. And then the engine room, there all four of them died.


Lundquist: Who were your shipmates who were killed?

Gallagher: Machinist Mate First Class Jim Cass, Machinist Mate Second Class Doug Freeman, and Fireman Dave Messmer were killed in the after engine room. There was an electrician – Mike Kawola, who had extensive burns. Mike was a really, really good guy. And I finally wound up in San Antonio, Texas, at the burn center. He died in the bed across from me.


Lundquist: How did they get you off the ship?

Gallagher: I was taken aboard USS Claude V. Ricketts (DDG 5), and then they took us to USS Dale (DLG 19), but the seas were so bad they couldn’t airlift us, so they drove us over by motor whale boat. And I remember this very clearly that there was much discussion about where they were going to hoist me over onto the Dale. They got me on board and took me into the ward room. From there I was taken to the Kennedy. There was a bunch of us there; and they said they couldn’t treat us on the Kennedy, so they sent us to Sigonella, the Naval Air Station on Sicily, where we were medevaced to Landstuhl, Germany.

When I woke up I was in Germany at the hospital in Landstuhl. The Air Force guy was talking to me, he says, “I’ll have to cut your wedding band off,”

Then he said, “We’re gonna try and clean you up and everything.” I asked him, “How am I doing?” He said, “You’re doing okay; don’t worry about it.”

The next day I woke up on the flight headed back to the States.


Lundquist: How many of you were there on the flight?

Gallagher: There were seven of us, and each of us had our own medical group working with us. We got to Bethesda, but I don’t remember that. Next thing I know, we were at the Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas. And they were taking us out of the airplane on stretchers and into ambulances. I woke up and there was a TV camera in my face. One of the Air Force or Army guys just pushed the cameraman him out of the way and said, “Leave him alone.” That’s when I arrived at the Sam Houston Burn Center.


Lundquist: How was your family informed about your situation?

Gallagher: My wife first heard about the incident on the news when it was reported that the ship caught fire and there were Sailors in the water but they were being rescued and nobody was hurt. My wife’s brother-in-law, who was a brigadier general, called the Pentagon and talked to some people who told him I was hurt but I was stable and I was going to be okay. But then my wife and mother got telegrams saying I had succumbed to my injuries. They sent a chaplain and two first class sailors out to my wife, who was staying with my in-laws, to tell them that I had passed. My mother told my father, “This is the first notice. The first notice is never totally accurate. Wait a couple days and they will find out what’s going on.”

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Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...