In the summer of 1967, something unthinkably weird happened on the deck of a US aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin.
It was fueling time in preparation for yet another sortie, and the planes were arranged on the carrier in this manner:
The large plane in the upper left, an F-4 Phantom II, flipped from external to internal power. Normally, this was wholly routine. This time, a power surge launched a 5-inch rocket out of the underwing rocket pod.
As you can see, the weapon struck one of the two manned planes, A-4 Skyhawks, on the right. Although a safety mechanism prevented the rocket from detonating, it struck and destroyed a wing-borne fuel tank on the smaller plane and a conflagration ensued. The external fuel tanks on those and nearby planes overheated and exploded, accelerating the fire with even more jet fuel, which then caused even more tanks in the area to cook off. The pilots in the affected planes could either quick-fry to a crackly crunch or jump ten feet down into the fire, near its source, and run through the erupting blaze to safer ground.
Meanwhile, the impact of the initial rocket strike had also caused a couple of half-ton bombs to come loose and fall into the heart of the inferno. A minute and a half into the crisis, as the mutually reinforcing jet-fuel/explosion cycle spiraled out of control, one of the heavy bombs beneath the struck planes cooked off. It destroyed the plane with its remaining arms, blew a crater in the flight deck, and rained fiery jet fuel and molten shrapnel on the crew who had been trying desperately to bring things under control. Almost all the on-deck firefighters were destroyed in the blast. In addition, the explosion detonated eight more of the same heavy bombs. The chained explosion of the half ton missiles shredded the flight deck and sent flaming and molten debris flooding down into the hangars and living quarters below.
One hundred thirty-four dead. One hundred sixty-one injured. It took the ad hoc firefighting crew until the following day to master the flames.
One of the pilots of the two Skyhawks the wayward missile had struck was incinerated by secondary explosions as he tried to escape his cockpit. The other, whose plane had dumped the half-ton bomb that set off the huge chain reaction 90 seconds in, managed to survive. Throwing open the canopy and climbing onto the nose of his plane, he ran down, leapt into the flames, and fled through the fire shortly before the big one beneath his craft went off and destroyed his aircraft and everything around it.
He escaped– but not before going back in to try to help another plane's pilot to safety– a rescue interrupted and prevented by an explosion that threw him back two body lengths, pelted his chest and legs with shrapnel, and ripped apart his fellow rescuers.
From the heart of the disaster the Skyhawk pilot finally made it to the periphery and safety, having defeated fear– having reacted with courage and agility just in nick of time.
His name? Lieutenant Commander John McCain.
Thanks to Wikipedia for the relevant details and images.