by Kevin Johnstone | July 15, 2020

July 12th was supposed to be just another beautiful Sunday in California. The weatherman was calling for a crystal-clear, hot, summer day at my home in North Escondido with temperatures in the mid-80’s. Like most men in their late 60’s, I have my normal wake-up routine, which in many ways is similar to the 1954 Ford my father had when I was a child. The engine needed to warm up a bit before I could even start moving, so I sat on the edge of the bed and glanced at my schedule for the day on my iPhone.

As the Safety Operations Manager for the Rock Church’s 5 campuses, and the Academy, Sunday is normally a work day for me, but the shutdowns due to the COVID-19 virus have moved all services to an online format. But, I am continuing to maintain a similar schedule as I did before the virus. So, I woke up at the usual early hour, got dressed, fed the dogs, made my coffee, had some peanut butter toast, and sat quietly with my Bible.

But on this day while I was getting dressed, the thought crossed my mind that I should wear at least a portion of my San Diego Fire Department Chaplain Uniform. I recall thinking this was an unusual thought but wrote it off to the weather report of high temperatures, low humidity, and moderate winds . . . the perfect recipe for a wind-driven vegetation fire. I thought back a few years and recalled how Pastor Mickey Stonier had walked up to my desk at work and said, “You used to be a firefighter, right?” I nodded. “Well, we’re expanding the Chaplain Program for San Diego Fire and you’re going to be a part of it.” And then he simply walked away. What followed was a string of classes, and books, and training sessions. And, each class the hook sunk in a little deeper, then the line, and finally the sinker. Mickey had trained almost every Chaplain in San Diego, and hundreds more from all over the world. I was feeling so blessed the day I received my uniform, badge, ID, and assignment. Every day was a blessing to be a Chaplain. Even the bad days.

“You used to be a firefighter, right?” I nodded. “Well, we’re expanding the Chaplain Program for San Diego Fire and you’re going to be a part of it.”

I watched the Rock’s 8:00 am online service. Afterword, I started thinking about what else I would accomplish that day when the SDFD Paging App on my phone came alive. Lots of apparatus was being dispatched on a 2nd alarm assignment to a Ship Fire. I later found out that it was the Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) – 844 feet long, resembling a scaled-down aircraft carrier used to bring 1,900 Marines into a combat zone by helicopter, Osprey, or Landing Craft. I knew the address because I had been stationed there as a young sailor in the 70’s. It was the Naval Shipyard at 32ndStreet. I knew from experience that could be really bad, or not much at all, and it wasn’t in my Battalion. But still, I watched the dispatch app and waited for the two Chaplains assigned to that area to pop up, all the while pulling on my uniform in case I got the opportunity to go.

After 15 minutes, and no Chaplains responding, I sent a text to the Captain who oversees all Chaplains that said, “Let me know if you need me to go to the Ship Fire.” His immediate response was, “Talk to B1 Chaplains and respond if no one else is.” I called the first Chaplain, a Catholic Priest, who couldn’t get away. The second was a Rabbi and that call went straight to voice mail. My next call was to Dispatch to have them attach me to the call and show me responding.

During the drive there, I thought about all the things that could be dangerous on board a military ship. I did a couple of deployments during my time in the Navy, and I knew the dangers. Also, was I responding to a nuclear-powered ship? That brings with it another level of danger that goes from dangerous to potentially catastrophic. So, while I was scanning the horizon in front of me looking for signs of smoke, I began to pray. I prayed for the safety of the firefighters I was duty-bound to protect, and I prayed for the sailors at the Naval Base. And, finally, I prayed for my own safety.

So, while I was scanning the horizon in front of me looking for signs of smoke, I began to pray.

That’s when I took the big sweeping curve towards the bay on Interstate 5 and the massive plume of billowing gray and black smoke appeared in front of me. It was then that I said, “Father God, protect us. Please hear my prayer.”

I was waved directly onto the base and quickly found my way to the staging area at the foot of the pier. There was so much smoke I couldn’t make out what ship it was or even the type of ship. I just knew it was huge. Not aircraft-carrier-huge, but huge nonetheless. I proceeded directly to the incident command location which was on the pier well past the stern of the ship. Protocol requires that I check-in and find out where I could best be utilized. Dan Guerra, another one of our Chaplains, was beside me. There were Chiefs from San Diego Fire, Federal Fire, and Navy Firefighting Operations all sharing information and attempting to develop a plan for putting out the ever-growing fire down in the bowels of the ship. I noticed some of the ship’s crew walking down the pier with soot marks under their nostrils, headed to the medical area to be checked out. There were officers and non-coms trying their best to help and offer decades of experience and information to those in command. Pacing back-and-forth wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and boots which, presumably were all they left the ship wearing.

The Incident Commander was a Battalion Chief I had met before, Chief Liversedge. I was anxious to be given an assignment and become useful, but I was equally content to watch him work. He was obviously not pleased that the fire was growing and that nobody was giving him an obviously workable plan to put it out. I watched him ask for experts to be summoned. He then said calmly, “If this fire gets any worse, in about 8 minutes I’m going to pull everyone off of this ship.” Then he stood quietly for about 30 seconds, deep in thought, and said . . . “Nah, forget that. Get them all off now. I don’t want anyone left on the ship.”

Chief Liversedge’s order was followed immediately. Everyone in or on the ship was evacuated within 15 minutes. Crews were still on the pier with large diameter hose lines attempting to cool the lines.

And then . . . BOOM!

I was looking up the pier at the crews and I saw, heard, and felt the explosion. Dan and I were about 50 yards away. A large horizontal blast of smoke and debris blew out of the side of the ship on the pier (port) side. A few seconds went by and then we heard the screams, followed by a massive stampede of people running away from the blast. Some were helping others walk, and still others were being carried. Then the shouts for “Medical . . . We need Medical” and we could see more seriously wounded being carried toward us. A few seconds later, “All Hands – Move these hoses out of the way so we can bring ambulances up.” Everyone joined in, including Dan and me, grappling the fully charged 5-inch hose lines to the sides so the ambulances could get to the victims.

Dan and I began directing everyone from the injured and the dazed to the Medical area so they could be checked out. We then started hearing more muffled explosions down inside the ship and everyone reached the same conclusion at once. . . time to go! Again, all hands started moving vehicles, apparatus, and equipment to a safe distance. Staging areas were relocated, as was incident command.

We then started hearing more muffled explosions down inside the ship and everyone reached the same conclusion at once. . . time to go!

In Medical, everyone near the fire was checked out. Blood pressure, pulse, breathing, and blood oxygen levels. Those that were near the blast were checked for concussion injuries, and they reported feeling like they had been kicked by a mule in the chest and their head felt like jelly. Dan accompanied 11 firefighters to the hospital that needed further evaluation and testing while I stayed behind to tend to anyone else.

I ran into Chief Liversedge in the Rehab area and asked him how he knew to pull everyone off when he did. He said, “It was my gut and the little voice of experience.” I replied, “You can call that little voice your gut, Chief, but in my business, we call that little voice God, and I want to thank you for listening. You saved dozens of lives by listening to Him.”

He stared at me for an unusually long time, saying nothing. And then he turned and went back to check on his firefighters.

Thank you, God. He heard You.

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