Blast Kills 47 on Battleship Iowa : Explosion in Gun Turret Rocks Vessel Near Puerto Rico

From Times Wire Services

A fiery explosion in a giant gun turret rocked the refitted battleship Iowa on maneuvers in the Atlantic today, killing at least 47 sailors and injuring an undetermined number, the Pentagon said.

Defense Department spokesman Dan Howard said the explosion may have resulted from the blast of a 110-pound gunpowder bag used to fire shells that weigh more than a ton a distance of up to 23 miles.

The 16-inch guns are the biggest in the Navy arsenal.

“We assume it was a powder bag,” Howard said in Brussels.

Another spokesman said at least 47 crewmen were killed in the explosion that ripped through the turret when one of the giant guns was being fired during a training exercise about 330 miles northeast of Puerto Rico.


No Danger of Sinking

The crew extinguished the fire that broke out. The spokesman said he had no word on the number of injured.

The aircraft carrier Coral Sea steamed to the scene, sending out helicopters to land supplies and medical crews on the ship.

The Iowa headed toward Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in Puerto Rico. It was in no danger of sinking.

“We lost fine young lives,” President Bush said during a photo session with congressional leaders at the White House.

“It’s a great tragedy and a matter of terrible sadness,” Bush said. He said he wanted to “express my regrets, especially to the families” of the victims.

Guns Date From 1943

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. William Crowe were informed of the incident while attending a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels.

The Iowa’s 16-inch guns are in three turrets. The explosion took place in the No. 2 turret.

The guns are originals dating from the ship’s first commissioning at the height of World War II in 1943 as a sister ship of the Missouri, aboard which the Japanese signed the war-ending surrender document.

The powder bags are stored below decks in heavily armored magazines. Defense officials traveling with Cheney said seawater was pumped into the magazine where the fire and explosion occurred.

Each of the ship’s nine guns requires a crew of 60 to 70 to operate it, with 20 to 30 people in the turret and the others below, sending up shells and powder bags. The powder bags are loaded behind the shells.

Often Refurbished

“It’s rather labor-intensive,” a Pentagon spokesman said.

The Iowa itself has been refurbished many times since it was commissioned and was most recently put back into service in December, 1982.

The ship was deployed in the Persian Gulf region between September, 1987, and February, 1988, as a symbol of America’s ability to strike deep into Iran. It also saw service in the Korean War.

The ship, 58,000 tons fully loaded, sails out of Norfolk, Va., and carries a crew of about 1,600.