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Navy Veteran Honored On History Channel Show

Reported by: Send eMail Stefano DiPietrantonio
Reported: Jul. 15, 2014 10:54 PM EDT
Updated: Jul. 16, 2014 9:29 AM EDT

Navy Vet Honored
Eyewitness News Photo

Charleston , Kanawha County , West Virginia

A Clay County native home for a visit from his job assignment in Saudi Arabia was featured on the History Channel Tuesday night with his amazing story of survival and faith.

Preston Fitzwater, 60, was just 22 years old when on board the U.S.S. Belknap. In 1975, the Belknap collided with an aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy. The men who died in that collision were honored on the History Channel show “Counting Cars,” with their names memorialized in a custom bike.

It's the international disaster that’s still fresh in Fitzwater's brain. He cannot believe it's been nearly 40 years since surviving a fiery collision between his guided missile destroyer the Belknap and the Kennedy aircraft carrier off the southern coast of Italy.

Fitzwater had just gone to bed Nov. 22, 1975, after a night of flight operations with the Kennedy.

"All of the sudden we heard, felt a rumbling, shuddering of the ship," Fitzwater said.

The lights went out and alarms went off.

Looking at a picture of the Belknap taken prior to the wreck, he recalls where the aircraft carrier came over the ship.

“It comes across the port side and starts peeling this part of our ship back," Fitzwater said.

Fitzwater and his crew knew they were in trouble.

"We ran into heavy smoke, so we had to turn around. And I remember sticking my head up out of the hatch," Fitzwater said. "Right here's the hatch where we came up," he said, pointing to the ship. "I looked up and all I could see were flames, 30-40 feet high."

They fought the fire for 12 hours with no sleep. Aviation fuel poured down their stack and missiles began going off like massive fireworks. The ship’s superstructure on top, a volatile combination of aluminum and magnesium, caught fire and began to melt. Fitzwater recalls their fire equipment and pumps not working because they had no power, so they were powerless to fight the flames for about a half hour, until another U.S. ship assisted in fighting the blaze.

Eight people died, and dozens of people were injured.

"My wife didn't know, my parents didn't know for, I think it was three days," Fitzwater said.

The Italian government set up a phone at the port once they were towed to shore. But it took forever it seemed to get through with so many men waiting to use that single phone, he said.

"I said, 'I'm OK,' that's the first thing I said, 'I'm OK,' ” he said.

Shipmate Mark Angle, who lives in Rocky Mount, Va., was an operations specialist with Fitzwater. Angle got in touch with Danny Koker at Count's Customs. Then, saw the amazing bike Koker created, at the ”Counting Cars” big reveal taping on June 12 onboard the U.S.S. Iowa in San Pedro, Calif.

The names of all eight who died are painted on the tank. Angle said he was surprised to see 10 shipmates and Capt. Dick Shafer also at the reveal, who he credits with saving the Belknap by turning it at the last minute.

"Any time you can honor people who've sacrificed everything for this country, I don't think there's a bad way to do it," Fitzwater said.

Fitzwater stayed in the Navy another three years and is proud of his service. He said the Navy built its ships differently from that point forward, using metals that would not melt down so easily in case of an onboard fire.

The remaining crew all still keep in touch on a reunion page on Facebook. The bike will go on tour at car shows, so that those who died that day are never forgotten.

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