The aircraft carrier USS Forrestal was a glorious ship staffed by a crew of 5,400 people. But that glory almost came to an abrupt end when on July 29, 1967, during the Vietnam War, tragedy struck. While conducting air operations in the Gulf of Tonkin a power surge in one of the fully-loaded, fueled, and armed jets on its flight deck caused a rocket from the plane to shoot across the deck into another fully-loaded airplane with external fuel tanks. The second aircraft caught fire and released its bombs onto the deck. Due to the intense heat of the burning fuel the bombs exploded.
This initial explosion killed the approaching firefighting team and over the next few minutes caused other planes to catch fire. This explosive domino effect put the ship in danger of sinking. Only through the heroic efforts of the crew was the ship saved. But it was not without cost. 134 sailors were killed and another 167 were injured.
The entire accident and response was captured on film by the ship’s deck cameras. This film has since become a training film in the Navy. (A friend of mine, who is an Annapolis graduate and former Navy SEAL, confirmed this for me. He told me that it was required viewing at the Academy.) While it clearly showed acts of extreme heroism, it also revealed a lack of training and preparedness. It exposed to all that with regard to such disasters the Navy had failed to think ahead.
It became clear that safety measures to prevent accidental discharge of weapons were not followed. Additionally, many of the munitions were not made to withstand fire for ten minutes (a realistic time period in such emergencies) but for two minutes. Another weakness that became evident was the lack of contingency plans if the primary firefighting crew was lost. The other crewmembers, while courageous, were not trained in firefighting techniques and thus made several critical mistakes. For example, they hosed down the burning fuel onto the flight deck, which pushed the fire into the ship.
Since the Forrestal disaster the Navy has implemented many changes. Flight decks are now equipped with a system that automatically foams the deck in case of a fire. Munitions have been improved to withstand fire for longer amounts of time. Safety procedures are more meticulously followed. And all crewmembers receive basic firefighting training.
The Navy learned its lesson. It has since further developed its culture of thinking ahead and anticipating what might go wrong so that sailors will be better able to respond quickly and effectively when disaster strikes. Like the Navy, leaders of all levels must absorb this lesson. They must think ahead, anticipate problems and prepare and train accordingly.
As we approach the New Year and prepare to improve ourselves through repentance, we as individuals can learn a lesson as well. The Torah describes (30:14) how the “entity” is very near to you. The Ketav Sofer explains, based on a midrash, that this refers to the mitzvah of teshuvah. He suggests that the Torah is instructing us that repentance is relatively easy if a person does it close to the time of sin. If a person regrets his actions immediately and wastes no time in improving his ways he can then effect teshuvah successfully before the sin becomes embedded in his character. However, the longer he delays, the harder repentance becomes.
One thing a person can do to ensure that he repents quickly after he sins is to think ahead. As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we should take a moment to carefully evaluate ourselves and identify the areas in which we need to improve. Then we need to design an improvement plan. For example, if we want to improve our tefillah we should figure out when our tefillah is weakest and why. We can then think of ways to improve. If, for example, we tend to get angry too frequently, we should ask ourselves what sets us off and take measures to prevent those catalysts from upsetting us.
The Forrestal disaster alerts us to a further step we should take. We should anticipate that despite our best intentions and careful plans we will nonetheless run into obstacles and our self-improvement will at times be derailed. This will allow us to put in place systems to help us realize our setbacks as quickly as possible and get us back on track in record time. All too often it is not the falling down that hurts, but rather the belief that we can’t get back up. We must have our own backup sin-fighting brigades.
May Hashem grant us the wisdom and fortitude to overcome all obstacles as we strive to become better people and get closer to Him.
May we all be blessed with a happy and healthy New Year.