It has been nearly forty years since the night of the fire that killed three of America's best Astronauts, Virgil I Grissom, Edward White II and Roger Chaffee. In the years following the fire, it was almost impossible to forget the tragic events that night and even today, what happened that night is firmly etched in my memories.
My thoughts go back to the 27th of January 1967 to a lonely launch complex named Pad #34 on the north side of Cape Canaveral, Florida. I had the misfortune of being next to Apollo 1, America's newest spacecraft built by North American Aviation, at the crucial moment when it burst into flames.
Even though it has been nearly 40 years, the memories are as fresh as that fateful day and no matter how hard I try to forget, I still see the smoke and flames. I can still hear the cries of my teammates as we try to get the hatches open. I can still see the flames reaching up toward the Solid Booster Rocket mounted on top of the spacecraft. I can remember my hopes that the Astronauts suits would just hold until we could get in.
The events of 9-11 in New York City brought it all back -- the fires in the WTC Twin Towers --fireman rushing into the inferno to do their job -- confusion and cries for help that kept the TV scenes rolling day after day.
We too had our heroes that evening, but they were never acknowledged and history has all but forgotten them except for the memories of those who were on the pad that night.
The White Room on the top floor of the Gantry Tower, level 8, provided service access to the Spacecraft. Here North American Aviation (NAA)Technicians, Jim Gleaves, Leadman, Jerry Hawkins and myself, Steve Clemmons, Pad Leader Donald Babbitt and L.D. Reese, Quality Control Inspector was standing by to support the final test leading up to a launch three weeks later. It was known as the plugs out test and completion would certify that the Spacecraft was ready for launch.
I was monitoring the panel feeding oxygen through a flexible hose into the Spacecraft through access port #14. Donald Babbitt, Jim Gleaves and Jerry Hawkins were monitoring headsets and speakers for any instructions to help in the test. They were lounging in chairs scattered around the room, following the various conversations between the Astronauts and Cap Com.
On level 7, twenty feet below, two technicians and a quality control inspector were standing by the umbilical panel located on the service module, ready to catch the cables that would be jettisoned at some point in the test. The rest of the crew had left the tower for the evening break and was supposed to return between 6:30 and 7:00 to relieve us.
It was very quiet and we were talking among ourselves about the conversations between the NASA Engineers in Block House and the Astronauts. The Astronauts had been in the Capsule since about 2:00 p.m. that afternoon and tempers were getting a little frayed. There had been problems all day and the most irritating of these problems was poor communication between the Spacecraft and Cap Con. Somewhere on the Cape, someone had left a headset mike open. In those days, headsets had hand controls with mike buttons which were always jamming.
We could tell that Grissom was getting agitated because of the scuffling noises coming from his side of the Spacecraft, which would suggest that he was getting restless. At 6:20 P.M., a hold was called to allow the Engineers time to try and get the communications cleared up and straighten up some of the procedures. We kinda relaxed as we knew it was going to be awhile and there was nothing we could do.
There was some minor chitchat between the Block House and Capsule, and the engineers were getting ready to pick up the count. The test conductor had just announced that the count would resume at 6:30.
The last test of the day was the Emergency Egress where the Astronauts would declare an Emergency and exit the Spacecraft on their own. We had been expecting this to start at any time so it was no surprise when we heard the word "Fire, we've got a fire in here." It has never been established as to exactly what was said.
At first we thought that they had jumped the schedule and this was part of the procedure.
I yelled out to Jerry Hawkins, "Did you hear that? Did they say there's a fire inside?" "Yea, sounded like it." Jerry yelled back but we still didn't believe it.
L.D. Reese, the NAA Quality Control Inspector threw his headset down and ran toward the lone fire extinguisher on that floor, he had heard the words clearly.
I looked over toward Jim Gleaves and he had a shocked look on his face. He realized that we were in trouble.
I heard Jim yell, "Let's get the men out" as he started to run toward the door leading out to the swing arm, just a few short feet away. He stopped, realizing that he didn't have the tool to open the hatches.
We needed a "T" handle allen wrench to open the hatches and it had been placed in the leadman's desk because we didn't think it would be needed. Jerry Hawkins ran to the desk and opened the drawer, frantically searching for the wrench.
Donald Babbitt, the pad leader, was trying to contact the blockhouse but the headsets went dead. He was still trying to confirm what we had just heard.
A million questions were running through my mind.
Is it a fire?
Did I hear it right?
Is it part of the test?
Then I happened to look up at the small window above Chaffee's seat. It had turned bright orange. It was then that I realized that we had a real fire on our hands.
My first words, almost a scream was "Oh God, it's happening, we've got a fire on board". But no one heard because they were scrambling to find the tool.
They had also seen what I saw, the orange window.
I was sitting next to access port #14 monitoring the O2 panel, which was feeding breathing oxygen into the ECU system. I started calling the engineer in the blockhouse on the headset, but for some strange reason, the headset went dead. (Later I found out that the Test Conductor had ordered communications cut in fear that word would get out about the fire.)
I had a choice. If I shut off the panel, it could starve the capsule of oxygen and if the Astronauts had survived the original fire, they would die, and if I didn't, it would feed the flames making the situation much worse. I jumped up and ran toward the intercom box which was against the back wall and frantically turned the channel selector, looking for an active channel.
Nothing. I needed answers' NOW.
Jim started toward the door, followed by Donald Babbitt and L. D. Reese when the capsule erupted in flame. The force of the blast knocked Jim against the door, which opened inwardly toward the spacecraft. Their nylon suits and shop coats were now on fire from the hot chunks of burning material that was showering down all over the clean room.
As Jim got up and struggled to get the door open, Jerry found the tool and followed them out on the swing arm.
I looked back to where I had been sitting. The chair, engulfed in flames, was reduced to a bare metal frame. The O2 panel was almost hidden in the heavy smoke and fire shooting out of access port #14.
(This is the opening that shows up on most of the pictures of the fire where the most damage occurred)
I knew that I would have to get back to it somehow if I could get an answer.
But nobody seemed to be on any channel, just dead silence.
By this time, flames were reaching the ceiling, sending out burning chunks of Teflon and thick acrid smoke and secondary fires were breaking out on level 7, just below us.
Flames continued to shoot out of the access ports, almost like blow torches. I continued to try to reach somebody in the blockhouse hoping the headset would come back on. I wanted to stay in the area to see if they wanted me to turn off the oxygen panel.
For what seemed like hours, I waited, but it was only about forty five seconds.
And the area was getting hot, the carpet was now burning and I decided that I had better get out while I could and debated whether to shut off the panel or leave it running. Finally, I decided to leave it on and evacuated to the Swing Arm white room to join my teammates.
I would guess it was almost one minute since the fire started.
The Swing Arm White Room was positioned next to the Spacecraft Command Module and was a part of the service structure clean room during ground tests. The only way in was to exit the Service Clean Room onto the catwalk, turn right and go to the end, about six feet from the door to the service clean room.
According to Jerry, it was sheer pandemonium when they first arrived, Heavy biting acrid smoke, heat and flames filled the small room, hardly large enough for three people. Jim entered first, followed by Jerry. Just as they reached the capsule, another blast of fire and smoke shot out into the room, driving them back out on the swing arm.
They decided to wait until the flames subsided before going back but they knew only seconds remained if they were going to get them out alive.
And these precious seconds were ticking away.
In the meantime, L.D. had found another fire extinguisher (note there was only two on that level) and was now looking for gas masks. If they could get a mask that worked, they could go back in.
Fire and dense smoke continued to pour out of the spacecraft and both levels of the service filling both rooms with flames, heat and thick acrid smoke.
Jim and Jerry couldn't wait for a mask and went back in.
Donald was trying to find a headset that worked so he could establish communications with the blockhouse. We needed help badly. Mostly something to put out the fire.
I think in the back of our minds, we were worried that the 9000 lb. escape rocket sitting over our head might go off. It only took a flame of 400 degrees in one of the engine nozzles to set it off. The fire balls now coming out of the spacecraft were floating up around the rocket, captured by the penthouse walls that protected this rocket from the elements.
The smoke was so thick that Jim couldn't see the spacecraft, but could only feel around for the BPC Hatch locking hex hole with the T-Handle, he was now nearly blind from the acrid smoke. Jerry was almost as bad off. Both were so hoarse they couldn't talk. They found the hole and inserted the tool.
There was a problem because the BPC Hatch had only been partially installed and seemed to hang up and it took extreme force to dislodge.
They finally got it off and passed it out the door, then started on the second hatch.
I arrived just as they started removing the 2nd hatch. I realized that Jim was in bad shape, near the point of collapse and persuaded him to go to the umbilical tower and get some fresh air. Jerry and LD continued to remove the hatch.
There was a guard standing next to the elevator.
"How about sending the elevator down so we can get some help up here?" I asked.
"I can't, I have to keep it here in case any of the astronauts survived" he replied.
"Well, anyway, would you watch out for Jim, he's pretty bad off" I replied.
Then I returned to the fire.
One problem was that as a matter of safety, we would always send the Gantry Elevators to the top floor in case someone had to get down in a hurry. Now the elevators had to descend to the ground, then return, a full two minutes.
Jerry, LD and I were working in short 20 second relays on the second hatch, but we were having a problem. The lower edge of the Boost Protective Cover extended well below the lower crown of the heat shield, acting like a giant inverted funnel for the fire and smoke coming from the spacecraft and secondary fires on level 7.
This directed the fire inside the BPC to the hatch opening.
Donald Babbitt found a headset that worked and was trying to coordinate rescue efforts from the blockhouse.
I don't believe that our crew on the ground knew what was happening and was not aware of our situation. When L.D. or I would go out into the fresh air on the swing arm we started yelling at the top of our voices "Get help, we need fire extinguishers and Scotty Air Packs". Every time we went out, we called out for help.
Some of the men heard us, poured out of the Tech Trailer and headed for the tower, bringing fire extinguishers. They knew that we were in trouble and the thoughts of that escape rocket going off was at the top of their mind. If it did, all of us were cooked.
There was no time for the elevators to come down so they started climbing 200 ft of stairs. One extinguisher, shown on the picture of the fire damaged access port #14 was originally on the ground, but was carried up the steps by two technicians
On one of his trips out to fresh air, L.D. found another fire extinguisher and some gas masks in an old foot locker. These masks were used for UDMH fuel handling but were of no use for the smoke we were encountering. When we tried to peel the protective tape on the inlet side of the canister, the tape had seized due to age and would not come off. So much for the gas masks.
We had to hold our breath and could only stay in the area a short time, probably about twenty to thirty seconds because of the dense biting smoke. Fire and hot smoke continued to pour out of the BPC opening, preventing us from getting more than three or four turns at a time. (Each hatch required 40 turns of the T Handle to release the finger latches)
Just as we were preparing to remove the 2nd hatch, the handles were too hot to hold. Jerry grabbed the extinguisher and directed the CO2 onto the handles, cooling them long enough for us to remove the hatch.
We were now getting heat and black smoke from the area between the pressure bulkhead and the heat shield which prevented us from getting to the third hatch mounted to the pressure bulkhead. Occasional flames would flare up and Jerry used the second extinguisher to bat them down, as well as cool the third hatch. The three of us continued to work in 20 second spurts until the third hatch fell inside.
Four minutes and fifteen seconds had passed before the last hatch gave and dropped inside, but just partially, because it seemed that something was blocking the way (this something proved to be the body of Ed White.).
Meanwhile, on level 7, the men, shocked and totally surprised when flame, smoke and bits of burning debris started to rain down on them, evacuated the room looking for fire extinguishers and anything else to fight the fire.
Fire had now broken out all over the room, setting the heavy rubber cushions around the door and floor opening on fire. When they returned with two fire extinguishers, they tried to put the small fires coming from the heavy rubber pads but flames were still shooting out from around the service module and the spacecraft. Heavy smoke filled the room, making it impossible to breathe.
Jessie Owens, a NAA propulsion engineer came down the back stairs from level 8, his hair and eye brows singed and clothes half burned off. He had been caught just at the instant fire started shooting out of access openings as he was trying to get to the spacecraft, but the flames drove him back.
Shortly afterward, men began to arrive with fresh extinguishers and they went on to extinguish the secondary fires. They were trying to get to level 8 but that area was still burning. The main fire in the spacecraft was slowly going out on it's own. They began to mop up the remaining fire and proceeded to the swing arm white room, by this time, the fire was out and the hatches had been opened.
One man that stood out was Dale Higgenbottem, NAA QC, was standing on the back side of the fire on level 8, directing his extinguisher at the fireballs going into the penthouse. I have always felt that his efforts prevented a bigger catastrophe.
This part of the story has never been told: It is from conversations that occurred at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base Hospital several hours after the fire by some of men.
Workers had started to evacuate the tower according to standard procedure. When they heard the cries for help coming from the top of the tower, they stopped and started running back into the tower, bringing fire extinguishers they had located in various places, not knowing what they were going to find.
They expected the rocket to blow at any moment.
Others poured out of the various support trailers located at the base of the tower, all heading toward the tower which was in imminent danger of blowing up because of the solid rocket motor and explosives packed in various places inside the rocket.
Forty three extinguishers were found on the two levels after the fire, only four were available at the start of the fire (two on each floor).
The umbilical tower elevator had been locked out on the top floor waiting for the normal egress of the Astronauts and the attendant had orders not to go down without the Astronauts. This prevented help from coming up the only way not blocked by fire. Level seven and eight enclosures which protected the Spacecraft and Service Module had been sealed with heavy rubber bumper seals for environmental purposes and the steel entry doors had been locked on the orders of the Test Conductor and Pad Security.
Using fire extinguisher bottles as rams, they tried to beat the doors in but to no avail. This created a problem getting in from the outside, as the only other way in was through the umbilical access covers located on the side of the clean room on level 7, not accessible by ladder or decking. Several men climbed out on the steelwork to reach these opening, then when they had gained access, opened the doors from the inside.
When they reached the 7th level, they started putting out the fires coming from the heavy rubber bumpers and seam seals that insulated the spacecraft service area. By this time, some of the fire had died down and the smouldering rubber was creating huge quantities of heavy black smoke. Without gas masks, they continued to work their way up to level eight and onto the Umbilical Swing arm.
They all knew that several hundred pounds of explosives had been installed and a 9,000 lb. thrust solid fuel rocket booster was mounted on top of the spacecraft, either of which could go off at any second.
Later, I remember talking to one man, Dale Higgenbottom, NAA QC, armed with a fire extinguisher who had made it to back side of level eight. He was watching for balls of fire that would float toward the penthouse(the housing around the Escape Rocket), which he would attempt to extinguish. He did a good job because the rocket didn't ignite. They counted 43 empty fire extinguishers on levels seven and eight after the fire was over. The escape rocket as well as the support structure had substantial fire damage.
It took us four minutes and fifteen seconds to get the three hatches off and by this time, other workers had arrived to relieve us. Several small fires still lingered but these were now being quickly extinguished.
As the last hatch fell, I was kneeling on the right side and Jerry on the left. I could get in but could only go so far because of the heat and smoke and restricted opening. I felt around the center seat, still barehanded, for Ed White's body but could not find it.
I could see from the damage that it had been a bad one, but amazingly, the small lights around the seats and consoles were still burning. I could hear noises coming from the inside, venting air making weird, almost human squealing sound, crackling, popping noises of metal cooling. I could see something on the couch where Chaffee was supposed to be, but it was just a black shape in the dark. I backed out and Jerry went in. He looked around, feeling for anything that would indicate they were there, and came out, tears in his eyes, "They're gone, Steve, they're gone. I can't find them".
At first we thought the bodies were cremated but there was no way we could tell.
With tears streaming down our face, partially from the searing gases and partly because of the sheer disappointment that we couldn't save the Astronauts, we backed away from the hatch opening. L.D., who by this time had found a workable gas mask, slipped into the partial opening almost up to his waist. He thought he heard something, which turned out to be the same squealing noises heard earlier, and jerked his mask off, hoping to give it to any astronaut he found alive. He slowly backed out, big tears streaming down his face, saying "They're dead, they're all dead".
We backed out of the way for the Donald Babbitt, the Pad leader to take a look. He looked inside and with tears streaming down his face, speaking over the headset to the test conductor, "I can't tell you what I see".
That let everyone know it was bad.
I guess it's all right for grown men to cry, anyway we really didn't care what people thought, we had just lost the crew and the spacecraft, both our responsibilities and we couldn't do anything about it.
According to all reports from the NASA Medical Staff, Everything was to no avail as the Astronauts were dead, killed within 18 seconds after the first explosion.
NASA never acknowledged the contributions of these men on the tower that night and their names were never published.
In fact NASA acted like it was our fault. The only ones that received NASA Commendations were the six of us on level eight and that was only after Congress told them to.
We always thought that was rather unfair. The entire crew considered the spacecraft and Astronauts their responsibility. We had trained from day one working around Aircraft and rockets that the crew was number one and to handle anything that might happen. At that time, we were the only ones who knew how to get the hatches open so we couldn't wait for someone else to get the men out. We were only doing our job.
Yet these men that came back to the tower that night came back, not because they had too, but because they responded to our urgent calls for help, knowing full well the danger they faced. I don't think they considered the fact that they could be injured or killed but only knew that they had to do something.
Investigations that followed showed that if the main fire inside of the Spacecraft had continued for one more minute with the same intensity, peaking at twenty-five hundred degrees, the ending would have been very tragic. The solid fueled booster rocket could have ignited, and the explosives would have gone off, destroying the pad and everyone within 1000 feet of the structure
I almost left out the part that Hank Rogers, a NASA QC inspector, played but not intentionally. He was on his way up in the elevator to level eight that night when he stepped out into a room of horror and immediately saw that the spacecraft was on fire.
He could have gotten back on the elevator and escaped to safety, knowing the dangers involved but he didn't hesitate. Instead he made his way through the smoke and fire in level 8 to the swing arm and began to help any way he could. He had not been trained on how to get the hatches off but he tried.
These men were our real heroes that evening. Even if NASA has forgotten and has tried to ignore the events of that day, I feel that I can speak for the Spacecraft Crew in saying thanks to those that came back.
I am sorry to report that Jerry Hawkins, L.D. Reese and Dale Higgenbottom have passed away in recent years.
This is not the end of the story. The best is yet to come.
(Copyright Stephen Clemmons, 2004)