WCHS Eyewitness News Home Charleston Eyewitness Newsroom Charleston Storm Team Weather Sports News TV Program Schedule Community Mobile: Smartphone,Tablet and SMS text Get Connected SMS Text Facebook Twitter See-It,Shoot-It RSS News Feed Email List Tumblr

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.

Man Accused Of Breaking Into Home To Have Sex With Teen
Jul. 31, 2014 11:16 AM EDT
St. Albans police said a man faces charges after he ...
Full News Story

Jim Justice's Mines Have Pending Violations In Ky., Four Other States
Jul. 31, 2014 10:32 AM EDT
A West Virginia coal billionaire has more than 250 ...
Full News Story

Move Over Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts To Take Over Summit
Jul. 31, 2014 10:38 AM EDT
When people think of Girl Scouts, there are a few words ...
Full News Story

News West Virginia State University To Host Summer Research Symposium For Students
Jul. 31, 2014 9:33 AM EDT
News Police Need Help In Finding Missing Man
Jul. 31, 2014 10:08 AM EDT
News Man Pleads Guilty In Identity Theft Case
Jul. 31, 2014 9:15 AM EDT
News Coal Supporters To March at EPA Hearing
Jul. 31, 2014 8:56 AM EDT
News Kroger Restricts Pseudoephedrine Sales In WV
Jul. 31, 2014 8:30 AM EDT
News Hyundai To Recall Thousands Of Sedans
Jul. 31, 2014 8:49 AM EDT
News State Fire Marshals Say Smoldering Cigarette Ignited Couch, Causing Fatal St. Albans Fire
Jul. 30, 2014 10:16 PM EDT
News Police Say Home Where Neglect Arrests Made Was In Deplorable Condition; Child Found Around Knives
Jul. 31, 2014 9:07 AM EDT
News Miners Gather In Pittsburgh To Fight For Their Jobs
Jul. 30, 2014 11:11 PM EDT
News Subway Break-In Suspect Arrested
Jul. 30, 2014 11:52 PM EDT
News Reward In Braxton Animal Abuse Case Increases To $6,500
Jul. 30, 2014 11:31 PM EDT
News Blighted Homes An Issue All Over Charleston
Jul. 31, 2014 12:10 AM EDT
News Woman Accused Of Killing Mother Pleads Not Guilty
Jul. 30, 2014 11:08 PM EDT
News Hurricane Police Seek Suspect In Attempted Break-In
Jul. 31, 2014 9:07 AM EDT
News Detroit Suspect To Be Extradicted
Jul. 30, 2014 11:11 PM EDT
News Police Called To Middle School After Alleged Disturbance Involving Plants
Jul. 31, 2014 9:20 AM EDT
News Program Helps Children With Hearing Loss
Jul. 30, 2014 11:13 PM EDT
News AARP Driving Safety Class Helps Seniors In Many Ways
Jul. 30, 2014 10:19 PM EDT
News Fla. Mom Arrested For Letting Son, 7, Go To Park Alone
Jul. 30, 2014 10:14 PM EDT
News Northbound Lanes Of East River Mountain Tunnel On I-77 To Remain Open
Jul. 30, 2014 10:12 PM EDT
News Another Tornado Confirmed In West Virgina
Jul. 30, 2014 10:08 PM EDT
News MU Star's Heisman Quest, Campaign For Cato, Launched
Jul. 31, 2014 9:23 AM EDT
News It's Never Too Late For Adults To Learn To Swim
Jul. 30, 2014 9:55 PM EDT
News Ex-Mingo Judge Reports To Florida Prison
Jul. 30, 2014 9:52 PM EDT
News Kenova Police Seek Help In Finding Theft Suspect
Jul. 30, 2014 9:50 PM EDT
News Friday Is Deadline For Jan. 9 Chemical Spill Claims
Jul. 30, 2014 9:47 PM EDT
News Hundreds Of Citations Handed Out In WV For Texting, Cell Phone Use While Driving
Jul. 31, 2014 12:10 AM EDT
News Police Say Teen Robbed In Downtown Charleston
Jul. 30, 2014 9:39 PM EDT
News Charges Dropped Against WVU RB
Jul. 30, 2014 9:33 PM EDT
News Elderly Woman Fights Off Intruders
Jul. 30, 2014 9:27 PM EDT

Advertise on WCHS-TV Online

West Virginia News
2 charged after girl found in vermin-infested home

Police in Charleston have charged a mother and a nanny after a 6-year-old girl was found in a boarded-up home infested with roaches and bed bugs.
Full Story

Kentucky News
Justice mines have 266 violations in 5 states

A West Virginia coal billionaire has more than 250 pending violations at mining operations in Kentucky and four other states.
Full Story

Ohio News
Judge orders mediation between Pilot, customers

A federal judge has ordered mediation in a lawsuit targeting the truck-stop chain owned by Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.
Full Story

Fugitive Files Tuesdays at 6 PM on Eyewitness News

West Virginia Wildlife Wednesdays at 6 PM on Eyewitness News

ABC News web site

Send Mail Send email to news@wchstv.com for information or comments concerning WCHS-TV Eyewitness News.
Copyright ©2014, WCHS-TV8. Portions are Copyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or distributed.

WCHS ABC 8 provides local news, weather forecasts, traffic updates, notices of events and items of interest in the community, sports and entertainment programming for Charleston and nearby towns and communities in the Tri-State area, including Huntington, Dunbar, Marmet, Montgomery, Nitro, South Charleston, St. Albans, Cedar Grove, Chesapeake, Clendenin, East Bank, Glasgow, Pratt, Cross Lanes, Elkview, Pinch, Sissonville, Big Chimney, Cabin Creek, Chelyan, Davis Creek, Institute, Jefferson, Loudendale, Mink Shoals, Pocatalico, Quick, Quincy, Rand, Buffalo, Eleanor, Hurricane, Nitro, Poca, Winfield, Culloden, Fraziers Bottom, Hometown, Red House, Scott Depot, Teays Valley, Danville, Madison, Hamlin, Logan, Chapmanville, Man, Delbarton, Kermit, Gilbert, Matewan, Williamson, Summersville, Richwood, Flatwoods, Gassaway, Sutton, Spencer, Ravenswood, Ripley, Mason, Point Pleasant, Ashland, Pikeville, Ironton, Portsmouth, Gallipolis, and Athens.