Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire: NR1’s Next Adventure

A. Holifield T. Warson

NR-1’s next trip would take it to the Mediterranean, which hardly gave her a welcoming embrace. On one of its first evenings, the NR-1 quietly rode along the Mediterranean floor; a small vessel in the ominous darkness. The sonar showed nothing – exactly what CO Warson wanted. Nestled in behind the pilot chairs, he was taking a much needed rest. Suddenly, the 2nd pilot reached around and shook Warson roughly. Warson woke up irritated, but surrounded by views that chilled his bones. The external video cameras showed that the NR-1 was smack dab in the middle of a mine field. Somehow the sonar had failed to pick up the WWII mines. Warson, now fully awake, shouted “Don’t Move! Don’t Do Anything!” for he knew that the mines became much more sensitive when submerged in salt water. If the NR-1 would even slightly brush one of those mines, she and her crew would be history.

Pilot chairs and tv

Warson also knew that he had to do something, as the surrounding current would eventually push the NR-1 into one of the mines. They couldn’t call for help, as the NR-1, while under Warson’s command, had gone “black.” The ship, her crew, and its high-intelligence operations were essentially non-existent to the rest of the Navy and the world. If something happened to them, only a few outside of those onboard, would know. Thinking quickly, Warson ordered the downward thrusters to be used to raise the ship straight upward. Thankfully, the NR-1 obeyed and the current cooperated (for once) allowing the ship to narrowly miss the dozens of mines surrounding her. NR-1 had yet again, averted (literally) a damaging blow.

By early 1974, the NR-1 had a new crew and its third Commanding Officer, Allison “Al” Holifield. And in keeping with its past, NR-1 would give its new crew a jarring welcome – a welcome that might just be its last.

On Good Friday in April, 1974, Al Holifield was awoken by the submarine base’s warning siren. Holifield fleetingly thought “there’s a fire somewhere on base,” before drifting back to sleep. A short time later, he was awoken again, this time by a phone call saying that his boat was on fire – the NR-1 was burning!

Although the NR-1 was nuclear-powered, it relied on 150 battery cells as backup. The silver-zinc batteries were of little concern to a crew focused on maintaining and running a nuclear reactor. In past travels, whenever a battery cell would overheat, a crew member would simply “pull up the decking covering the cells….yank the hot cell out and dunk it in a bucket of water to cool it down.” While not a regular occurrence, it was easily handled when it did happen.

That evening an alarm monitoring the battery compartment sounded. The men onboard, unconcerned, made their way to the compartment to investigate. Upon reaching the compartment, they noted that the decking above the battery wells was red hot. They cautiously removed the plating and were immediately hit with boiling hot Potassium Hydroxide fumes. The overflowing battery fluid had spread to the other batteries, causing them to burn and give off a tremendous amount of heat and “acrid smoke.” While a normal burning battery acid would have been bad, to say the least, the crew was unaware that the negative battery plates had been filled with mercury – a substance banned in its use on submarines, due to its toxic nature when released into the atmosphere. The presence of mercury quickly turned the acrid smoke into a poisonous gas; complicating the fire containment and putting the crew at significant risk.

Holifield made his way to the boat and watched helplessly as his crew, donning protective masks, battled fearlessly against the fire with CO2 fire extinguishers. The fire raged on for hours, at one time reaching a whopping 1700 degrees within the compartment, evidenced by the melted silver found below. Mercury vapor spewing out of the ship, removed the paint on a Sperry van parked nearby. Holifield could only wait and hope that the expanding CO2 would contain and extinguish the fire.

Amazingly, luck would again be on NR-1’s side, as hours later the crew emerged exhausted but victorious. The fire was out and NR-1 was still standing…well, floating. It would take six months to decontaminate and repair the damage sustained in the toxic fire – but once again, NR-1 and her crew had averted certain disaster.

Information in this article was garnered from the book Dark Waters, by Lee Vyborny and Don Davis. The book is available to purchase in our museum store and on our store website.