Copyright 1996, The Idaho Spokesman-Review
A swinging door didn’t knock Zach Mayo off an aircraft carrier and into the Arabian Sea last November as he maintains, a 93-page Navy report concludes.
At most, the Osburn, Idaho, native - elevated to “hero” status by North Idahoans and politicians - may have been startled by the swinging door. But even that is questionable because the Navy doesn’t believe either wind or the movement of the USS America caused the door to swing.
Investigators also say Mayo should not have been on the small platform he fell from. The area was off-limits after dark, in part to prevent people from falling overboard without anyone noticing, the Navy said in a report obtained by The Spokesman-Review. The Navy now locks the door to prevent a repeat of Mayo’s plunge into the ocean.
There are conflicting reports about when Mayo last was seen on the aircraft carrier, which caused the Marines and Navy to wait more than a day before launching a search.
That three-day search involved as many as three submarine-hunting planes and three ships. An estimate of the search’s cost is unavailable, the Navy said, but it easily ran thousands of dollars an hour for the airplanes alone.
Mayo, now stationed at Cherry Point, N.C., has not seen the results of the investigation. But he is sticking to his story, he said Tuesday.
Mayo, 21, told investigators last winter he was knocked off a small platform about 2 a.m. Nov. 24, after going out for a stroll to settle his Thanksgiving dinner. He claims the ship turned, causing the door to open, hit him in the back and knock him into the water.
The subsequent adventure he recounted included 36 hours in the North Arabian Sea, treading water and constantly reinflating his coveralls-turned-life-preserver.
Pakistani fishermen found him incoherent, but still treading water on the afternoon of Nov. 25. The captain and crew tied their turbans together to pull him out of the water.
Upon his return to Idaho, Osburn and Wallace threw the first hero’s parade in their history. U.S. Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, and other North Idaho politicians also celebrated, joining the parade or sending a representative to read heart-felt remarks. Now “Reader’s Digest” is publishing Mayo’s story, the Navy said.
“I know for a fact that’s what happened,” he said when asked about the Navy’s conclusion.
A few days after Mayo’s rescue, he was taken back to the USS America and asked to show investigators what happened. That included a walk out on the platform, which normally is used by harbor pilots to board the aircraft carrier.
After that inspection, a Naval investigator concluded: “If (Marine) Lance Cpl. Mayo had been standing where he indicated, I believe he could have easily avoided the door, even if it were opened without any forewarning.”
The Navy still decided Mayo’s adventure was an accident.
The lengthy investigation also questions why an air and sea search wasn’t launched for more than a day - about the time the Pakistani fishermen were said to be pulling Mayo out of the water. The consequences of that delay could have been tragic, the Navy acknowledges.
Part of the problem is that Mayo was reassigned temporarily from his duty as an aircraft hydraulics mechanic. He was working with a Navy hazardous material team that was restacking pallets on the day in question.
Mayo didn’t show up for morning roll call. No one was alarmed because he often went to the weight room with his aircraft squad instead.
In addition, Mayo occasionally had unauthorized absences, the Navy report said.
“I remember missing a few times,” Mayo said, “but they were excused.”
More confusing is that four people reported seeing Mayo - as long as 18 hours after he says he went overboard - doing everything from standing in the mess hall line to hanging out in the smoking area.
The Navy is going with Mayo’s estimate of the time of his plunge. “However, the substantial conflicts regarding Lance Cpl. Mayo’s last sighting on board America make it difficult to ascertain with certainty the precise time he fell off America,” said the report.
The report, sometimes heavily edited, contains interviews with several Marines who say Mayo seemed in generally good spirits. However, the mostly deleted remarks of one man who remembered talking to Mayo the night before the accident concludes: “I think this might be why he was nervous.”
There’s no explanation of what this means. And Mayo said he doesn’t remember the conversation or being nervous about anything.
As a result of Mayo’s mishap, the Navy locked the door to the platform he was visiting and redoubled training that emphasizes where people shouldn’t go for midnight strolls.
Marines, “because of their comparatively limited exposure to the vessel are not as likely to be as cognizant of the hazards of life at sea as ship’s company,” the report said.
Mayo never returned to duty on the ship and instead went back to his squadron’s home in Cherry Point.
He tried to become an embassy guard, but has a stress fracture in his leg that disqualified him.
Mayo said he was not disciplined. Instead he was promoted to corporal and now is with an administrative unit. As he draws toward his third anniversary as a Marine, he is planning to try for officer’s school.
As for swimming, “I haven’t been in the water, except for showers,” Mayo said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo Graphic: What happened to Zach Mayo?
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