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French naval ship explodes off Normandy coast; two dead

April 30, 1997

CHERBOURG, France (AP) _ A French navy ship on a mission to destroy old grenades in the Atlantic blew up and sank off the Normandy coast Wednesday, killing at least two crew members, authorities said.

Three people were missing and the 17 others on board were rescued and hospitalized, four in serious condition.

Officials called off a search for the missing men at nightfall and were to resume Thursday. A mine sweeper also was to search the wreck, about 200 feet below sea-level, to look for unexploded grenades.

Navy officials didn’t immediately disclose the cause of the midmorning blast off Cap Levy, east of the naval port of Cherbourg, and said an investigation was under way.

``There was apparently a fault in the mechanical system controlling the explosion,″ a member of the French navy said on condition of anonymity.

The 140-foot La Fidele was supposed to explode 24 cases of grenades that would have been used to combat military divers. The 15-year-old grenades normally would be destroyed 30 feet below the water, maritime authorities said.

The flat-bottomed ship sank in less than 15 minutes, and the navy rushed three ships and a helicopter to rescue the crew.

A British navy boat 600 yards from the French vessel at the time of the explosion also assisted in the rescue and recovered one of the dead, the British Defense Ministry said.

There were 16 navy personnel and 6 civilian armament specialists aboard at the time of the explosion, maritime authorities said.

The ship was first put into service in 1969. There are two similar boats still in operation for the French navy.

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