Sailor Under Investigation After Recanting Claims He Rescued Kids from Burning Building

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Machinist's Mate 2nd Class Nathaniel Atkins, assigned to the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford's engineering department, works on a large ice maker.
Machinist's Mate 2nd Class Nathaniel Atkins, assigned to the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford's engineering department, works on a large ice maker in the ship's hangar bay in March 2020. Atkins was the subject of a Navy news release after he claimed to have helped save two children in a fire. (Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Sawyer Connally/Navy)

The Navy has removed a news release touting a sailor's heroic actions during a recent fire in Virginia and is now investigating whether the claims were made up.

Machinist's Mate 2nd Class Nathaniel Atkins, who's assigned to the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford's engineering department, claimed to have rescued two children from a burning building while on liberty last month. But the local fire department that launched a review into the matter said Atkins has since recanted his story.

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"During an investigation, he provided a statement that he did not rescue anyone from the structure," said Justin Arnold, the battalion chief for special operations and deputy coordinator of emergency management with the Portsmouth Fire Department. "This is an ongoing investigation, but the interview was face-to-face with investigators on July 6."

Cmdr. Jennifer Cragg, a Naval Air Force Atlantic spokeswoman, said the Ford's command judge advocate was made aware of the questions surrounding Atkins' claims. The incident is now under investigation, she said.

Navy Times first reported the change in Atkins' story Monday.

Atkins was the subject of a July 1 Navy news release titled "Sailor Saves Lives on Land." The report has since been deleted from the Navy's website.

The service on Tuesday posted a new release saying the previous post was removed after “the Navy has learned that the initial facts as reported are in question.” 

“We will update the story with the correct information when the investigation is complete,” it adds. 

The Ford sailor, who has served for more than 10 years, said at the time that he was on his way home from getting groceries when he saw the house on fire. He pulled over immediately after finding out there were two children inside, according to the account.

"It was a four-apartment duplex, and the main entrance that goes upstairs where the kids were, was on fire," Atkins said in the release. "I couldn't get through it. I saw the two children in a bedroom window in the back half of the house on the second story and went to find a ladder."

He credited his time at sea, where he trained for firefighting emergencies, with helping him keep calm. He said he got hold of a ladder and climbed to the window, where he could see the two little girls.

"There was so much chaos in the very beginning, nobody was taking control," he said. "I just leapt into action and did what I needed to do."

He said he had the first girl out before the fire department and other emergency personnel pulled up and got the second girl out as firefighters began combating the flames.

An incident report obtained by Navy Times said the kids were rescued by Lt. William Hatfield with the Portsmouth Fire Department.

A woman in the building did not survive the blaze, which Atkins said he regretted.

"I have a feeling of guilt, just because of the grandmother and that situation," he said, "but to be honest, I did everything I could. I think that I did a good job. I have a feeling that I've accomplished something."

When asked whether Atkins said what led him to make the claims about rescuing the children, Arnold declined to comment. He said the investigation into the fire started the night it broke out and is still ongoing, but Atkins' command is handling those aspects of the probe.

Portsmouth Fire Rescue and Emergency Services department officials said last month that the fire had been deemed suspicious and police were seeking three suspects.

The department is not seeking any charges against Atkins, Arnold said. The sailor is not considered a suspect.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a statement from the Navy.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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