The tragic fire began with the accidental launching of a Zuni rocket from a F-4B Phantom aircraft. This rocket launch was not the result of error on the part of the crew. The rocket streaked across the flight deck and struck the external fuel tank of an A-4E Skyhawk aircraft, spilling volatile aviation fuel across the flight deck. Within five seconds the fuel ignited, spreading under other aircraft loaded with ordnance and fueled for the second launch of that morning. Huge clouds of black smoke billowed three hundred feet into the air. Scores of flight deck personnel rushed to contain the spread of the flames from reaching thirteen adjoining aircraft all loaded with ordnance. In one minute and thirty-four seconds after the fire started, the first 1000 lb. bomb exploded. Flying shrapnel tore into other aircraft, ruptured more fuel tanks, and spread lakes of flaming aviation fuel over the deck. In a period of four minutes, seven major high order explosions shook the entire ship ripping seven huge holes through the thick armored steel flight deck with some reaching through the ship to the water line. Countless high and low order detonations continued. Some 40,000 gallons of jet plane fuel leaking from punctured aircraft fuel tanks, spread into holes ripped through the deck, spreading flames to many compartments far below the flight deck. Courageous fire fighting teams, officers, and enlisted men were knocked down, injured, or killed by the series of explosions. Rockets, missiles, and 20 mm shells shot across the flight deck, and ejection seats fired into the air. Twelve minutes after the last major explosion, but with minor explosions continuing, flight deck directors moved aircraft from near the island super structure while fire fighting teams kept the fire from advancing farther forward. Aircraft, some still in flames, were jettisoned in an effort to keep the fire from spreading. Fires continued out of control in the after part of the ship far into the night. Finally the fire was extinguished at 0400, 30 July 1967. Heroic crewmembers risked life and limb to battle the blaze, rescue fellow crewmembers and save their ship.
The crew of over 5,000 men saved their ship. One Hundred Thirty-four crewmembers made the supreme sacrifice. One hundred sixty-one men were injured with sixty-four personnel sustaining severe injuries.