Firefighter calls self 'hot mess' after 2012 submarine fire

"My whole life has been to serve and protect and in one day it was all taken away from me," Eric Hardy said while recalling the fire aboard the USS Miami


By Elizabeth Dinan
Portsmouth Herald

KITTERY, Maine — When Eric Hardy read about the emotional suffering of Kathy Fury, mother of submarine arsonist Casey Fury, he thought about himself and many others hurt by the fire.

"I'm sorry Mrs. Fury is having a hard time," Hardy said, during the two hours it took the former Portsmouth Naval Shipyard firefighter to summarize the impact the fire had on him, his family and other firefighters.

Smoke rises from a dry dock as fire crews respond Wednesday, May 23, 2012 to a fire on the USS Miami SSN 755 submarine at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. (Photo/AP)
Smoke rises from a dry dock as fire crews respond Wednesday, May 23, 2012 to a fire on the USS Miami SSN 755 submarine at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. (Photo/AP)

Hardy, 48, was injured during the May 23, 2012, fire aboard the USS Miami, for which Casey Fury was convicted of setting. Six years after the fire, Hardy cites a long list of related physical ailments, financial setbacks and things he can no longer do.

"My whole life has been to serve and protect and in one day it was all taken away from me," he said. "One little person made this huge spiderweb effect and each person has to deal with their own demons."

Hardy said his wife, Keri, has borne much of his family's burden.

"I guess the way to call it is, I'm a hot mess, and she has to live with it," he said.

'Everything was on fire'

The night of the fire, Hardy was in his 13th year as a shipyard firefighter and was training junior firefighters for the Eliot, Maine, Fire Department, where he was a volunteer firefighter. He was notified that all shipyard firefighters were recalled for the fire aboard the nuclear submarine and on the drive back to the shipyard, he said, he could see the smoke from Walker Street in Kittery, Maine.

Hardy said police at the gate "knew exactly who I was and exactly why I was there," so they waved him through a security gate. It was a hot day, he recalled, so he changed into his bunker gear in just his underwear, then walked to Dry Dock 2. His chief told him and two other shipyard firefighters to go into the sub's engine room, down a 4-foot passage way and through a hatch. As he passed through a smoke curtain and snapped on his headlamp, Hardy said, he uttered "Holy (expletive)" because the smoke was so thick "you couldn't see the floor."

"Everything was on fire," he said.

When the first crew of firefighters found the flames, Hardy said, they were out of oxygen and had to evacuate. He said he crawled through water about 4 inches deep, couldn't stand because it was too hot and still has scars on his shins from the water that had become so heated.

Hardy said he was with his captain who, like many other firefighters there that night, don't want to be identified publicly and would prefer to forget about it. He said his chief gave orders to evacuate to reassess, that his captain had "already done multiple attacks" and was going up a ladder when he showed signs of fatigue. Hardy said he suggested he follow the captain up the ladder, so he could spot him from behind, but was instructed to go first.

When he got to the top of the ladder, Hardy said, the fire captain let out a "gut-wrenching scream," then went unconscious. Hardy said he grabbed a piece of staging around the hatch with one hand and held onto the captain with the other. He was on his knees and said the captain, "hung there for a while," before he was able to hoist him up.

"Everything was fine at that point," he said. "Things started calming down, the adrenaline started coming down and that's when I noticed pain."

The pain, he said, ran from his neck, down his back and into his legs. He went by ambulance to Portsmouth Regional Hospital and, he said, he later learned he had a ruptured lumbar spine, hurt his neck and tore muscles in his right bicep, abdomen and groin. He said two Eliot firefighters, "who don't want their names out there," were briefly trapped under wires that fell on them while fighting the Miami fire. They cut themselves free, had run out of air and held their breaths while escaping with their lives, he said.

"And that's just in Eliot alone," Hardy said. "We could've lost three firefighters, widowed three wives, and six kids could've been orphaned. This story is not just about me. There were a hundred firefighters that went to this. Each firefighter was affected in some way."

Hardy said for the first six weeks after the fire he had to have someone with him around the clock.

"I couldn't get up on my own power," he said. "They had to care for me, cut my food for me. I had to be walked to the bathroom."

'A hot mess'

Hardy said he was later returned to work on light duty in a radio room, but lost overtime and for eight months, "sat up all night stressing because I was a burden to my household."

"Not only did (his wife) have to deal with me being a hot mess," he said, looking at his wife through tears, "but me not being the true man I should be. She had to work overtime on weekends to help pay the bills."

Hardy said he was allowed to work in the fire station until last year when he was let go because, "I was taking up a slot for a full-time firefighter."

"It wasn't fair," he said. "I had to go."

Because the federal government has to find "reasonable accommodations," they gave him a job managing shipyard passes after he started losing feeling in his right hand. A doctor later took him out of work when it got worse, he said, and he later learned a vertebrae was pressing on a nerve. Worker's compensation paid just a percentage of his income, he said, so "we were having a hard time paying the bills."

Hardy said his injuries cost him a job he loved when he was 2 1/2 years from a 20-year retirement. He plans to file for a medical retirement that will pay him less than they planned and provide fewer benefits.

"I can't even perform the job as a fire inspector because I can't pass the 20-pound lifting capacity," he said. "I did fire prevention with the kids and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed training the juniors. I'm proud of every single one of them and (Casey Fury) took that all away from me."

Hardy said he had a doctor's note saying he can't shovel snow or push a snowblower, but worker's comp denied his request for snow removal reimbursement, so he had to buy a plow.

"I still have medical bills, some I'm paying out of pocket," he said.

Ever since the Miami fire, he said, he's had to sleep on a recliner and because of his injuries, hasn't slept in bed with his wife for six years.

"She suffered as much through this as I did," he said.

Hardy said they kept the thermostat turned down to keep heating bills low. They deferred maintenance on their home because, he said, "I can't swing a hammer."

"Taking a shower, I have to have a loofah on a stick," he said. "I used to kick open doors and windows, I was Superman for a while."

He said his family "used to love to go camping, but we can't do that anymore."

"I used to love riding my motorcycle, last year I rode maybe 100 miles," he said. "We had to alter our lives over this event many times."

Hardy said he also suffers emotional pain, due to his being taken by ambulance from the fire scene.

"I wasn't there for my brothers," he said. "I wasn't fighting alongside them. I blame myself."

His wife said, "Each one has their own hell to deal with."

Eric Hardy said many of the firefighters were put under a gag order and many were never recognized for their response to the submarine fire.

"It's about all of us, the firefighters, the families," he said. "It's not just my injury, it's my wife's injury, my mother's injury, my daughter's injury, it's my brothers at the shipyard. It's like a plague, it really is."

Copyright 2018 Portsmouth Herald

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