BY LARRY Deklinski

NORFOLK, Va. - Emotional. That is how David Jepko of Mount Carmel describes stepping onto the USS Enterprise (CVN 65) nearly 44 years after his late father helped save fellow sailors aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier during a massive fire Jan. 14, 1969.

Jepko, his brother, Robert, and sister, Sandra, along with their families, honored their father's heroic actions by attending a Fire Memorial and Inactivation Ceremony Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at Pier 12 of the Norfolk Naval Station. Following an inactivation phase that will last until 2017, the ship will be towed to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility for dismantlement and recycling.

A chief machinist mate born in Atlas, Zachary Jepko served on the Enterprise from 1966 to 1970. He escaped injury on a lower deck while fighting flames caused by a MK-32 Zuni rocket, which overheated and exploded while loaded on a parked F-4 Phantom jet. A chain reaction of explosions followed, which ultimately claimed 28 sailors.

"He was instrumental in helping people that were hurt," Jepko said. "He also was one of the people who made sure there wasn't more damage to the ship."

The Enterprise, commissioned Nov. 25, 1961, completed 25 deployments in its 51 years of service. It is 1,123 feet long, 250 feet high, and has a flight deck of 4.5 acres.

Jepko said the crowd of 12,000 people at the Inactivation Ceremony were ecstatic when Capt. William Hamilton Jr., who was moved to tears at the mention of the men who saved the carrier, announced that the CVN 65 would not be the last carrier to bear the name "Enterprise."

Touring the carrier was especially important to Jepko's son, Eric, who was only seven years old when his grandfather passed away in 1997 at the age of 60.

"When we found out about the last voyage, we thought it would be a good vacation to show our son the carrier his grandfather worked on," Jepko said. "I felt like another part of my dad was gone when I found out they were going to scrap it and never see it again."

The fire

David was seven years old, Robert, six and Sandra not even born yet when the fire occurred. Their mother, Elaine, waited anxiously for two days at their home in Alameda, Calif., to hear if Zachary had survived, but phone lines were overrun by the thousands of sailors aboard, causing a delay in communication. When their father did manage to call home, it was short and to the point.

"We weren't sure if he was alive or not. My mom waited for dad to call," Jepko said. "About a day or two after the fire my mother got a call. He said, 'It's me. I'm OK. I have to go.' Then he handed the phone to the next person."

Jepko said his father kept most of the details about the fire quiet, even after he retired from the Navy after serving 20 years. The family keeps reminders of that day, in the form of newspaper clippings and a "yearbook" from that tour of duty.

"He was private about the incident," Jepko said. "Back in those days, you did your job, and did what was expected, and that's it."

Retirement

Jepko and his wife moved to Charleston, S.C., where he opened up a plumbing and heating business - a trade he excelled at during his years of service. He successfully operated the business until 1975, before moving back to Atlas.

Looking back, Jepko said his family is proud of the courage and bravery their father showed throughout his career in the Navy.

"He loved it," Jepko said. "I mean it was hard. He was away for six months at a time, but he saw the world," Jepko said. "He loved that life."