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Thresher remembered; sub disaster marks 47th year at Portsmouth shipyard; families honor victims
By Jason Claffey

Foster's Daily Democrat 

Sunday, April 11, 2010

 

KITTERY, Maine — For the families of the 129 men who perished when the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard-built USS Thresher submarine sank 47 years ago, there are no graves to visit. The bodies of their loved ones were never recovered, leaving them to mourn in a void as large as the sea.

That changes during a memorial service held every year.

Saturday afternoon at
Traip Academy, a crowd of about 300 gathered to remember the worst sub accident ever in terms of loss of life.

"The ripples have dissipated, but the memories of that day have drawn us here today," said Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Commander Bryant Fuller, who gave the service's introductory remarks in the school gymnasium.

Faulty piping was blamed for causing the Thresher to sink below crush depth while it was conducting a test trial off the coast of
Cape Cod. At the time, the nuclear-powered, fast-attack sub was the most advanced in the world.

Lori Arsenault, daughter of Thresher crew member Tilmon Arsenault, said it's important for her family and others to get together every year and keep the memories of their loved ones alive.

"We need each other," she said.

Her father, a decorated World War II veteran, operated the Thresher's nuclear reactor. When he wasn't in uniform, he liked to play the organ and taught Lori and her brother, Bill, how to play. She said he would often have her play in front of his buddies to show off.

"He was so proud of me," she said.

Before he left for the fateful mission, she said he promised to build wooden blocks to prop up the organ pedals so she could reach them.

Similar stories circulated among the dozens of families gathered during the hour-long ceremony.

"It brings us back to such good times," Arsenault said.

In one of the ceremony's most poignant moments, the family of Billy Max Klier, an engineman aboard the Thresher, laid wreaths at the water's edge of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The family included his wife, Mary Ferrall; son, Billy Klier; and two grandchildren, Michael and Andrea.

The Thresher's sinking led to the establishment of the SUBSAFE safety program that has prevented a similar disaster, according to Al Ford, director emeritus of the Navy's Submarine Safety and Quality Assurance program based in
Washington, D.C. He flew up to speak at Saturday's ceremony.

"The changes their sacrifice brought about are alive and vibrant today," Ford said.

Fuller said he has signed about 60 SUBSAFE certificates over the year for new and overhauled subs.

"Every time I give that signature, I think about the Thresher," he said.

A single sub — the USS Scorpion — has sunk since the Thresher tragedy, though the Scorpion was not SUBSAFE-certified. The Scorpion sunk from a possible mechanical failure in 1968 near the
Azores while it was observing Russian naval activity. Ninety-nine men perished.

The Thresher had been conducting a test trial off
Cape Cod during its doomed mission. It was accompanied by the USS Skylark.

On April 10, 1963, the Thresher sent the Skylark a message saying, "We are experiencing minor difficulties, we have a positive up angle, and are attempting to blow. Will keep you informed."

Minutes later, the Skylark received two garbled messages. Its radar then detected a high-energy, low-frequency disturbance. It turned out to be Thresher imploding, as it had fallen below crush depth.

The men who perished included crew members, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard officer observers, shipyard civilian workers, and contractor technicians.

 

The Plan

The Boat

 

The Old and The New

The Lone Piper

The Wreath

A Moment of Meditation

 

The Gang