Freighter in Restricted Waters When Hit by Missile, Navy Says

Times Staff Writer

A merchant ship struck by a dummy air-to-surface missile during U.S. Navy exercises off Hawaii was in restricted waters and caused the missile to be “diverted” from its intended target, the Navy said Tuesday.

But the captain of the 550-foot freighter Jagvivek told the Associated Press Tuesday that he was following a course given by the Navy and was advised that he was out of the danger area 40 minutes before his ship was hit.

The ship was hit by the non-explosive practice missile Monday afternoon during the closing hours of a Navy exercise involving the San Diego-based carrier Constellation. A civilian crewman on the Indian-registered ship was killed.


“The missile range gave us a certain course to steer and (later) advised us we were clear of the area,” said Capt. P.M. Mirchandani, 34, who brought the ship into Honolulu Tuesday for repairs.

Lt. Cmdr. Gary Shrout, a spokesman for the Navy at Pearl Harbor, said the captain’s contention and “everything about this thing will be investigated. It’ll take a while to put all the pieces together.”

Officials at the Pearl Harbor Navy Base said a damage estimate was unavailable, but a Navy spokesman said the freighter was able to steam into port unassisted.

Regrets Expressed

A spokesman for the Indian Embassy in Washington said the State Department telephoned the deputy chief of mission, E.A.N. Raman, Monday night with “apologies and expressions of regret.”

“They said the merchant ship had entered a restricted area being used for the testing of missiles,” said the spokesman, who asked that his name not be used. “We are still trying to establish all the facts. It is very unfortunate.”

No official protest of the incident was planned, the spokesman said.

Petty Officer Paul Floyd said the freighter was about 80 miles northwest of Kauai when it was struck in the superstructure by a Harpoon missile fired by an FA-18 Hornet flying from the Constellation. The carrier, the San Diego-based frigate Marvin Shields and three other ships were conducting exercises while en route to a deployment in the Western Pacific.

Floyd said the missile, which has a nominal range of 65 miles and travels 684 m.p.h., was fired at a target ship but was diverted by the Jagvivek, which was bound for Singapore with an undisclosed cargo.

“Unfortunately, the exercise missile was fired close enough to the path of the merchant vessel for the missile to guide on it instead of the original target,” the Navy said in a prepared statement.

Beyond Visual Range

Floyd said the missile was launched beyond the visual range of both the target ship and the Indian freighter, but he did not know whether the pilot witnessed the impact.

The 12-foot-long missile tore into the superstructure of the ship, near the radio room, and killed the crewman, who was identified only as a 36-year-old civilian. The Indian Embassy said there were also several injuries, but those reports could not be confirmed.

Floyd said the episode occurred in the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range, a practice area encompassing several thousand square miles of ocean. Warnings closing the area and alerting ships to the practice sessions are broadcast at certain times of day over marine radio frequencies. Notice that the range would be in use Monday was issued four days earlier, Floyd said.

‘Standard Practice’

In addition, Floyd said it is “standard practice” for the Navy to conduct a “thorough surveillance of the area for surface craft and air traffic” before initiating weapons firing. He said it would be “difficult to believe” that that was not done Monday, but added that such information will be uncovered during an inquiry into the incident.

After the freighter was struck, two Navy ships taking part in the exercise proceeded to the scene to offer assistance. A Navy doctor who was put aboard the Jagvivek pronounced the crewman dead. The victim’s body was flown by Navy helicopter to Kauai.