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URGENT Explosion Kills At Least 47 On Battleship Iowa

April 20, 1989

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) _ A huge gun turret packed with gunpowder exploded in flames on the battleship USS Iowa near Puerto Rico on Wednesday, killing at least 47 sailors in one of the worst naval disasters since the Vietnam War.

The death toll from the accident during a gunnery exercise, ″could go higher, but we don’t know at this point,″ said Lt. Cmdr. Steve Burnett, a spokesman for the Atlantic Fleet, based in Norfolk. The death count was taken from a list of sailors assigned to the position rather than a body count.

Despite the deaths in the explosion and fire, there were no serious injuries. A number of sailors suffered minor injuries, mostly bumps and bruises, said Chief Petty Officer Bobby Gimblet, another fleet spokesman.

Each gun’s 16-inch-diameter projectile is propelled by explosives in fabric bags loaded separately from the projectiles. The gun requires up to five bags, each containing 110 pounds of powder to fire a 2,700-pound round.

The turret - which extends through seven deck levels of the ship - was ″full of gunpowder,″ said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Baumann, another fleet spokesman.

Iowa crewmen put out the fire in 80 minutes, flooded several magazine compartments holding explosives as a precaution and declared the ship out of danger, Baumann said.

The Iowa rendezvoused at midafternoon with the nearby aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea, which carries three doctors and has full medical facilities, Baumann said. Helicopters from the Coral Sea brought medical equipment to the Iowa and transferred some injured crewmen to the carrier.

″The ship has not sent a list of the wounded. They have other things more pressing to worry about,″ said Lt. Russ Grier, an Atlantic Fleet spokesman.

The Iowa will arrive Thursday morning at Roosevelt Roads, a Navy base in Puerto Rico, said Cmdr. Robert Franzmann of the Atlantic Fleet. The 46-year- old ship, one of the four largest in the fleet, is based at Norfolk.

Two ships participating in the same exercise collided Wednesday afternoon about 500 miles east of Jacksonville, Fla., causing one minor injury, said Archie Galloway, a civilian public affairs officer at Norfolk.

Neither the USS Platt, a fleet oiler, nor the frigate USS Tripp was in danger of sinking, Galloway said. The ships were not in the same area as the Iowa, and also were en route to Roosevelt Roads.

Navy officials were notifying relatives personally of the deaths, Baumann said. Several family members gathered at a gymnasium in Norfolk to await word.

″The longer we hear nothing, the better it is,″ said Sandy Tate of Charleston, W.Va., a relative of crewman Jonathan Tate.

The explosion occurred during a gunnery exercise about 330 miles northeast of Puerto Rico, Burnett said. The ship’s 16-inch guns can fire 2,700-pound shells a distance of 23 miles.

The fire was in the second of the two forward turrets, at the loading position of the middle gun, said Bruce Nason, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon. There also is a turret at the back of the Iowa. Each turret is protected by armor that is 17 1/2 inches thick.

There was no sign of the accident visible during a flyover of the ship.

A gun turret is normally occupied by 27 people, but can hold 60 or 70 people, Baumann said, but, ″We don’t know how many people were in there at the time.″

Mark Newton, a former Marine who spent a week as a guest on the Iowa in 1987 and now is curator of the permanently docked USS Massachusetts in Fall River, Mass., explained how a shell is loaded.

After the shell is placed in the gun, a door is opened to the gun room from the powder hoist room, he said. Cylindrical powder bags, containing about 110 pounds of powder, are then rammed in behind the shell and what is called a breech plug is sealed to prevent the leakage of powder gases.

Newton said there were ″at least five″ stages in the firing process when the explosion could have occurred but would not speculate further.

The training exercise to improve fleet readiness began April 13 and involved 19,000 people aboard 29 U.S. ships, three allied ships and shore- based aircraft, Baumann said.

There were 1,600 people aboard the Iowa, including Vice Adm. Jerome Johnson, commander of U.S. 2nd Fleet.

It was believed to be the worst loss of life aboard a Navy ship since June 2, 1969, when the destroyer USS Frank E. Evans collided with the Australian aircraft carrier Melbourne in the South China Sea, killing 74 people. An Iraqi missile attack on the USS Stark in May 1987 killed 37 crewmen and wounded 21.

In 1977, 49 sailors died when a 56-foot launch returning sailors from shore leave in Barcelona, Spain, to the USS Guam was hit by a Spanish freighter.

A similar explosion occurred in the center gun turret aboard the heavy cruiser USS Newport News during the Vietnam War in October 1972, killing 20 crewmen and injuring 36.

″It is a great tragedy and a matter of terrible sadness,″ President Bush said in Washington. ″I will take this opportunity to express my regrets, especially to the families of the kids that were killed.″

In addition to its massive 16-inch guns, the 887-foot Iowa is equipped with 12 five-inch guns and Tomahawk and Harpoon missiles. It was the model for three other Iowa-class battleships and is among the most heavily armored of U.S. warships.

The Iowa and its sister ships, the New Jersey, the Missouri and the Wisconsin, are the largest battleships ever built except for two Japanese ships of the World War II era, the Yamato and the Musashi.

The Navy, in accordance with policy, would not confirm or deny whether the ship carried nuclear weapons.

The Iowa was built during World War II, mothballed until the Korean War, and mothballed again. It was modernized and reactivated in 1984, at a cost of $409 million, and returned home last year after service escorting Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf.

The Navy provided the following hot line numbers for people to call for information about relatives on the ship: inside Virginia: 800-572-2126; outside Virginia: 800-368-3202 or 800-523-2975.

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