OPINION: The Navy sub disaster, I saw it on the radio

Nothing about politics or the election today; my nerves can’t take it. Instead, let’s turn back the pages to a couple of calamities of the past.

Last week the Navy began releasing documents from the investigation into the deadliest submarine disaster in U.S. history — 300 pages from the official inquiry into the sinking of the USS Thresher on April 10, 1963 — but the documents released under a court order really don’t shed any new light on the cause of the sinking.

The Thresher had undergone sea trials and was back at sea for deep-dive testing about 220 miles off Cape Cod. The disaster took place in the depths of the ocean, so of course there was no TV coverage, no pictures at all. 

What I remember is that I saw it on the radio. That is, I listened intently as the news came in over my old, bedside Philco, with its glowing dial and the hum of its tubes, and I remember that my restive mind provided more than enough images — dim, black & white images — of what the announcer was telling me as the wreckage of the nuclear sub and all 129 souls aboard settled to the bottom of the North Atlantic.

Looking back now, it seems to me that the mind is more than capable of supplying the video to go with either a radio broadcast or a book, and that the mind’s eye may even be more acute than the camera’s. (Would a movie of “Moby-Dick,” say, really be more gripping than the novel? I doubt it.)

Moving right along, there was another disaster, this one closer to home, that I also followed with my trusty Philco: the Hartford Hospital fire of Dec. 8, 1961. Nowadays you can easily google photos of this calamity, but I don’t remember seeing any at the time. I do remember listening, and praying that God wouldn’t let anybody die. But 16 people did.

If there’s any upside to this, the secret analysis of the Thresher’s loss during the Cold War led to improvements to both the design and construction of later subs. No comfort to the families of those 129 men, though. (For the record, the Thresher was built by the Navy in Maine, not by General Dynamics in Connecticut.)

And the Hartford Hospital fire led directly to dramatic changes in the design and building of hospitals, and to fire codes. Hartford Hospital, to its credit, was open about the fire from the beginning.

“We are going to investigate this and we are going to change the way that hospitals are built,” then-president of the hospital, Dr. Stewart Hamilton, is quoted as saying at the time.

“The hospital has made it their mission to be a forerunner in fire safety,” Michael Garrahy, fire marshal for the hospital, told the Hartford Courant on the 50th anniversary of the fire.

I was at least slightly surprised, the last time I was there, to find glass showcases lining a ground-floor corridor, telling the story of the worst day in Hartford Hospital’s history. No sugar-coating by the PR department; the hospital has been willing to use its prestige, and its pain, to help prevent future tragedies.

And maybe that’s the kind of honesty and openness that brings progress. And maybe our politicians could learn something from that example.

So you see, this was about politics after all.

Reach Glenn Richter at grichter@record-journal.com.

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