Saturday, April 05, 2008

Dave Fetherston Shares a Harrowing Sea Story

I am always eager to hear stories of military leaders who have learned valuable skills that are directly applicable to the challenges of the private sector. The ability to remain calm under pressure and duress is just such a transferable skill. When Dave Fetherston first told me the amazing story of the naval vessel that almost sank in Boston Harbor, I knew I wanted to share the story with the readers of The White Rhino Report. So, Dave has kindly taken the time to summarize this amazing story.

A Sea Story From A Shipyard


David Fetherston

During the summer of 1984, I was the Main Propulsion Assistant (MPA) aboard the USS Valdez (FF1096), a fast frigate that was reaching the completion of an overhaul availability at the General Shipyard facility in South Boston. The ship had been in a dry dock for several months in order to perform major hull and superstructure modifications as well as the repair of many thru-hull valves. This was my first major overhaul and I clearly remember buzzing needle guns, the smell of burning metal, minimal ventilation and dust everywhere.

As the MPA, I had overall responsibility for the crew and main engineering spaces that housed the boilers, ships service turbo generators (SSTGs), the main engine and a variety of other auxiliary equipment. Main Control was in the engine room and was the central location for managing the engineering plant operation while underway and “steaming” in port. The Engineering Officer of the Watch (EOOW) is responsible for running the plant and directing casualty control procedures. Typically about six officers and senior enlisted men were qualified to serve as EOOW during my tour.

During our shipyard project, ship’s force had to interact with several outside parties. The shipyard was the general contractor that provided all the skilled labor and materials for the overhaul and had financial incentives to get the ship out of the maintenance period at or ahead of schedule. The Department of the Navy had supervision over shipbuilding teams that served as project managers and had government authority to pay the contractor(s) and approve additional working. The Squadron to which our ship was attached was responsible for providing combat-ready resources to the Atlantic Fleet. In our case, the Squadron was comprised of a comparatively small fleet of antisubmarine and mine warfare assets stationed in Newport, Rhode Island. Typically, the Squadron wants to make sure that ships complete all maintenance availabilities on time in order to participate in important fleet operations and training exercises. The officers and crew of the ship arguably have the most vested interests in ensuring that all projects were performed correctly and completely, since they need to live with the quality of the work that had been performed when underway.

Steam driven engineer plants are complicated and very dangerous. Our plant had a pair of Combustion Engineering 1200-psi uncontrollable superheat boilers that produced invisible, moisture-free steam that averaged 985 degrees. The inside casing temperature of the boilers could exceed 3000 degrees generated by a high pressure mixture of fuel oil and compressed air through four large injector ports. The steam that was generated propelled a variety of turbines, including the main engines and the turbo generators that provided high voltage power to the main electrical distribution system. The boilers used a closed-loop boiler water system, meaning that after steam passed through a turbine and expended all its energy, the vapor was condensed back into water and returned to a storage tank for steam regeneration. Keeping a steam plant in equilibrium requires a lot of highly trained and talented professionals.

A few days prior to re-floating the ship in the dry dock, the contractor had reinstalled a 36-inch wide butterfly valve located at the bottom of the hull in the middle of the night in order to make the scheduled launch time. The valve controlled the flow of seawater through the main condenser that housed over 4000 cooling tubes in a two level high structure underneath the low-pressure turbine. The opening of the valve was approximately 17 feet below the waterline. The normal protocol was to have someone from ship’s force, either the Chief Engineering Officer or Division Officer inspect a critical installation prior to signing off on the job. In this case, for reasons that remain unclear, the job was signed off without representation from the Engineering Department.

On July 31st, the ship’s crew was performing a dock trial that involved testing the main engine along side the pier with tugboats alongside to prevent forward movement. I was the Engineering Officer of the Watch and had representatives from the Squadron, the contractor and SUPSHIP Boston in the control booth with me. All valves were aligned properly, according to the valve indicators and I gave the order to open the throttle valve to begin spinning the main engine. Almost immediately, the main condenser overheated and we lost vacuum in the condensation system, rendering the main engine inoperable. After consulting with the representatives in the booth, we believed that something had been sucked into the main condenser that was preventing cooling water from passing through the system. The recommendation was to drain and open the main condenser and inspect the inside of the housing for debris. I agreed and notified the Commanding Officer of my intentions and he agreed.

I pulled out a casualty procedure card and proceeded to go through the checklist with my Chief Petty Officer. All valves were closed, according to the valve indicators, and red tags were affixed to the value wheels. Also, all valve wheels were wired closed as required for any thru-hull fittings. Once all required steps were completed, my Chief and three petty officers began draining the main condenser. When the water level indicator showed that the condenser was nearly empty, the Chief opened up the access cover to inspect the inside of the housing. The time was 0852.

When the access cover was removed, the hot steam from the overheated chamber was released which created a sudden loss of pressure inside the condenser. Before the chamber was opened, the stream pressure held two flapper valves closed which were preventing seawater from outside the ship to enter into the condenser chamber. When the Chief removed the bolts, the flapper valves slammed open, and the ship began flooding at an estimated rate of 22,000 gallons a minute. The heavy access port cover threw the Chief onto the deck plates and then hit two other men, throwing them into the bilge pockets. In the control booth, we heard frantic screaming and the sound of rushing water. My MM1 came running up the ladder, soaking wet, and said something had ruptured below. I called the Commanding Officer on the bridge, reported uncontrollable flooding and requested that we go to General Quarters. Within minutes, the Coast Guard was notified and the police closed Boston Harbor to all shipping.

All three men had sustained serious injuries and the water was rising very quickly. I recognized that we had only minutes to get them out of the space or they would likely drown. All the pumps and machinery on the lower level were powered by 440V electricity and there was little time before the seawater would hit the circuitry. If that happened, the men and the rescue team would all be electrocuted and the ship would lose critical electrical power that was needed to energize emergency dewatering equipment. I ordered Electrical Central to secure power to the lower level of Main Control and shift the electrical load back aft to the emergency diesel generators. Damage Control Central began to move all available dewatering equipment into main control in an attempt to hold back the volume of seawater pouring into the space. Emergency rescue teams then entered the space to move the injured men out of the rising water. It was clear to me that the emergency dewatering equipment could not keep up with the volume of water shooting out of the condenser. So when the last injured man was removed on a vertical stretcher, we evacuated the space and moved the watch over to the Fire Room.

Upon arrival in the control booth of the Fire Room, I was told that water was pouring in through cableways in the lower level of the space. We got the damage control teams to move all dewatering equipment into the lower level of the Fire Room where the flooding was running at about 4,000 gallons minute. My leading petty officer and I went down to the lower level toward the bulkhead that separated Main Control from the Fire Room and we could see that the weld in the middle of the wall was beginning to crack from the water pressure on the other side. If the bulkhead failed and seawater rushed in and hit the boilers, the ship would have exploded and settled in Boston Harbor. My crew immediately began to build supports using 6”x6” shoring and metal screw jacks, supported against the boiler casing, to hold back the pressure of 17 feet of flood water on the other side of the bulkhead. Simultaneously, my Fire Room watch team shut down the boilers using an emergency procedure and released steam pressure from the system. With the help of divers from the Boston Harbor Police and the Coast Guard, steel plates were secured to the thru-hull valve openings and the seawater was pumped out of the space before the bulkhead failed. We were able to save the Fire Room, but Main Control had sustained millions of dollars in damage. The flood line was over the top of the main engine turbine casings.

Shortly thereafter, a very long and painful investigation was conducted that initially pitted the contractor(s) and Department of the Navy against the Commanding Officer, the Chief Engineering Officer, my crew and me. From the outset, it appeared that the strategy was to focus on my actions taken as the EOOW during the flooding casualty and not look into the root cause of the casualty. After many months of depositions and even an Admiral’s Mast aboard the USS Mount Whitney before the Commander of the Atlantic Fleet, it was determined that a shipyard contractor had installed the 36” butterfly valve incorrectly. When the valve controller indicated the valve was closed, it was in fact all the way open. There was no way to know this until the housing was removed. In the end, the contractors and supervisors of ship building were held responsible and the Commanding Officer, Chief Engineer and I were all cleared of any wrong doing. A little over a year later, I was promoted to the role of Chief Engineering Officer, the department head position with responsibility for the entire engineering department.

I often think of that day as a defining moment in my professional maturity that was unlike any other experience in the career. As with most people with whom I have spoken who have been on active duty, I learned how to quickly prioritize and compartmentalize critical issues, make decisions with the best information available, delegate responsibility and accountability, and then move on to the next problem.

The best interview I have had in my career was with an executive who was a former Damage Control Assistant on a destroyer. When he asked me to describe my toughest day at work, I told him about this day in Boston Harbor. When I finished, he smiled and said, “I can promise you, you’ll never have a day like that here. Welcome aboard.” For all of us who have served, I hope there are many more people out there just like him!

After completing his career in the US Navy, Dave Fetherston earned an MBA from Babson College, and has carved out an impressive career in the private sector. He lives in the Boston/Providence area and is looking for his next leadership opportunity in the areas of business development, client relationship management or sales management. If you know of a company that could use his clear-headed ability to solve complex problems under enormous pressure, I will be happy to put you in touch with David. He is eager to help make his next company “ship shape”!


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