Blast Kills 47 on Battleship Iowa : Explosion Hits 16-Inch Gun Turret During Maneuver Off Puerto Rico

Times Staff Writer

An explosion ripped through a gun turret on a World War II-vintage U.S. battleship Wednesday, killing an estimated 47 sailors and injuring an undetermined number of others during a naval maneuver in the Atlantic Ocean.

The blast occurred during a gunnery exercise at the second of two forward turrets on the battleship Iowa, a 60,000-ton warship that first saw combat in 1943 off the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Navy officials said that the Iowa’s crew required 80 minutes to extinguish the blaze that followed the explosion. The ship, they said, was in no danger of sinking.


In the seconds after the explosion, the ammunition magazines adjacent to the 16-inch gun were immediately flooded with seawater in an effort to prevent secondary explosions, said Navy spokesman Bruce Nason at the Pentagon. “We have no information that there was any secondary explosion,” he added.

Carrier Reaches Scene

About 3:30 p.m., some 5 1/2 hours after the blast, the U.S. aircraft carrier Coral Sea reached the Iowa. Helicopters ferried the dead and injured to the Coral Sea’s medical facilities and to hospitals in Puerto Rico. Navy spokesmen said none of the injuries were serious.

The Iowa then headed toward a naval base at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, where it was expected to arrive this morning under its own power.

Officials at the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia, the Iowa’s home port, set up a counseling center and an information clearinghouse to provide news and comfort for families of victims.

“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.” He said that he wanted to “express my regrets, especially to the families” of the victims.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were informed immediately of the incident while attending a meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers in Brussels.

A Navy spokesman said that the tragedy, one of the deadliest in recent U.S. naval history, occurred during “a routine gunnery exercise” that was part of U.S. Navy maneuvers 330 miles northeast of Puerto Rico. The exercise included 29 ships and is expected to continue until May 4 in spite of the tragedy.

Defense Department spokesman Dan Howard said that the explosion may have occurred when one of the 110-pound gunpowder bags used to fire the big guns ignited prematurely.

The Navy said the exact cause of the explosion is still undetermined and announced that it will launch an immediate investigation.

‘Full of Gunpowder’

The ship’s guns were being test fired and the turret was “full of gunpowder,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Baumann, an Atlantic Fleet spokesman.

Naval experts said that the 16-inch gun in which the explosion occurred operates with a complex system of ammunition storage sites, elevators and firing mechanisms that may have broken down somewhere in the loading process.

Storage rooms holding gun powder and munitions in the hold of the ship are linked by elevators to the gun turrets. During firings, about 25 sailors work to load and fire the three guns in each turret and about 50 sailors below feed rounds of ammunition into the guns.

The battleship’s 16-inch guns, designed to fire 2,700-pound shells as far as 23 miles, are considered to be among the Navy’s most destructive weapons. Similarly, the battleship is believed to be one of the Navy’s most indestructible warships, with steel walls more than a foot thick.

The same armor that protects the Iowa from external attack may have concentrated Wednesday’s explosion, making it more deadly to those within the inner works of the 16-inch gun.

“For people encased in a turret, the concussion would be bad,” said Chuck Myers, a Washington-based defense consultant who helped persuade the Navy to bring back the battleships.

“If the walls were not that thick, more people outside the turret might have been affected by the explosion,” he said. “The ship’s armor is designed to contain battle damage so that if they’d been in combat, they’d just go on fighting.”

For that reason, said Cmdr. John Woodhouse, a Navy spokesman, the number of injured sailors is not expected to be high.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said, “but this particular type of incident tends to produce deaths rather than injuries.”

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

The Iowa, along with the rest of the Navy’s battleships, was moth balled shortly after the Korean War, discarded as obsolete after being outpaced by fast carriers and longer-range submarines.

But the battleships came back during the early 1980s as part of the Ronald Reagan Administration’s military buildup. The Iowa was recommissioned in 1984 after a $400-million overhaul and three other battleships--the Missouri, the New Jersey and the Wisconsin--are also in service now.

Retired Navy Capt. David R. Cox, who served aboard the Iowa as a midshipman, said that the battleships were pressed back into service again because they are menacing weapons that effectively show off American might.

“They’re big and ugly, and survivable, and they look really mean,” Cox said. They served the Reagan Administration’s purpose of convincing would-be adversaries that American military prowess is back on the rise.

They are also cheap--at least relatively so. Reactivating a mothballed battlewagon cost the Administration less than it takes to build a brand-new guided missile frigate. Besides its 16-inch guns, the Iowa and its sister ships carry Tomahawk and Harpoon missiles.

Nason said that the last such accident involving a battleship occurred in November, 1943, aboard the battleship Mississippi. As it shelled Makin Island in the South Pacific, the Mississippi’s No. 2 turret exploded, killing 43 seamen.

A similar explosion occurred in October, 1972, when a gun exploded aboard the heavy cruiser Newport News--one class smaller than the Iowa--while the ship was stationed off Vietnam. Twenty men were killed and 36 were injured.

The Iowa carries two doctors aboard and has 26 general-care beds to care for a crew of about 125 officers and 1,700 enlisted personnel. Among those aboard Wednesday were Vice Adm. Jeremiah Johnson, commander of the U.S. 2nd Fleet.

The carrier Coral Sea, which came to the Iowa’s support, has four intensive care beds and 50 general-care ward beds and is attended by two physicians and a small army of medical assistants.