A pipe bomb Friday destroyed a van driven by the wife of the captain of the cruiser Vincennes, which mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner last year. Authorities suspect it was a terrorist attack.
Sharon Rogers, 50, escaped just seconds before the van burst into flames.
A Justice Department source in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity said investigators suspect that the bombing was the work of terrorists. The FBI said it had not ruled out anything.
Mrs. Rogers was uninjured and was taken to a police station, where she was joined by her husband, Capt. Will Rogers III. Rogers was home at the time of the blast. Authorities placed the family under protection. Their son was away at college and was notified.
Mrs. Rogers, a schoolteacher, was driving alone to school and was stopped at a red light when the bomb exploded at 7:45 a.m. She jumped out as fire quickly gutted the van.
Rogers was in charge of the San Diego-based Vincennes in July when the guided-missile cruiser, on duty in the Persian Gulf, mistakenly shot down a civilian Iran Air Airbus A300 carrying 290 people. Everyone aboard was killed.
No one claimed responsibility for the car bombing.
“We have no motive at this point in time--certainly, we have no suspects,” Tom Hughes, special agent in charge of the local FBI office, told a press conference. “We certainly do not rule out the potential retribution to Capt. Rogers for his . . . command in the Navy.”
The explosive was attached to the white Toyota van’s undercarriage, said San Diego Police Department spokesman Bill Robinson. Fire department officials agreed. “The device that was thought to be a pipe bomb was confirmed,” Robinson said.
Nevertheless, the FBI was not prepared to confirm the type of explosive device, the type of explosive material used or how it was detonated, Hughes said.
A message from Rogers was relayed by Cmdr. David Dillon, spokesman for the Naval Surface Force Pacific Fleet, to which the Vincennes is assigned.
“I talked with Capt. Rogers and Mrs. Rogers this morning at the police station. They wanted to pass on that Mrs. Rogers was fine and in good shape.”
Asked about Rogers’ reaction to the bombing, Dillon said, “I think he’s just exasperated by the whole thing. Obviously he’s concerned about what happened to his wife. They just want to get on to other things.”
The Rogerses were being taken to a secret secure place where they will stay indefinitely, Dillon said. Their son also was under protection.
Dillon said he did not believe any other Vincennes crewmen were being protected. But the Navy increased its security at the San Diego Navy Base and other facilities, Navy Chief Craig Huebler said. Other Vincennes crew members and their families were notified.
The Vincennes returned from its six-month Persian Gulf deployment last October. It remains in port and Rogers remains its skipper.
As the Vincennes exchanged fire with Iranian speedboats last July 3, Iran Air Flight 655 appeared on the U.S. warship’s high-tech radar. After the plane failed to respond to warnings on civilian and military channels, Rogers gave the order to fire.
Compensation for Victims
The decision, he said later, was in defense of his ship and crew. But what Rogers feared was an Iranian F-14 fighter actually was the Airbus A300. The Reagan Administration defended the decision but also decided to compensate the victims’ families.
After the shooting, Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for an all-out war against the United States. Speculation after the destruction of a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December has focused on whether that bombing was in retaliation for the Vincennes’ action. (Immediately after the plane crashed, a group claimed responsibility. But its claims were discounted at first.)
In Washington, Navy officials at the Pentagon said they were unaware of any threats against Rogers or his family, but were awaiting additional reports from San Diego.
Construction worker Kurt Lent said he heard what sounded like a pair of backfires, with a 10-second interval, then a loud blast.
“It went ‘Boom!’ ‘Boom!’ then ‘Bam!”’ he said. “It worked real quick.”
Seeing that Mrs. Rogers had escaped the van, Lent ran to the flaming vehicle to make sure that no one else was inside. He and fellow workers directed traffic while their supervisor escorted her to a pickup.
“She was shaken up, obviously,” said Lew Davis, another worker.
Police sealed off the area, and the FBI took over the investigation from local authorities. Naval Investigative Service officials also were called in.