Engine Room Blaze Kills 6 on U.S. Navy Ship

Times Staff Writer

Fire ripped through the main engine room of a U.S. Navy supply ship in the South China Sea on Tuesday, killing six crew members and injuring five.

Pentagon spokesman Dan Howard said that a fuel leak appears to have ignited the blaze aboard the combat supply ship White Plains while it was conducting operations with the aircraft carrier Constellation about 100 miles east of Hong Kong.

The crew of the 581-foot ship extinguished the fire in about 1 hour and 15 minutes, the Navy said.

The disaster came less than three weeks after 47 sailors died in an explosion and fire aboard the battleship Iowa. While the two accidents appeared to be unrelated, Navy officials said that both are examples of the most dangerous shipboard fires--those that involve fuel and ammunition stores.

The White Plains carries food and spare parts and ferries between ships of the 7th Fleet to replenish their supplies. The ship, which had supported U.S. Navy operations in the Persian Gulf and made a port call at Hong Kong, was returning to its home port of Guam when the fire broke out.

Ventura Man Killed

The dead included Muoi Cao, 22, a boiler technician 3rd class from Ventura, Calif., the Pentagon said late Tuesday. Some names of the deceased were withheld pending notification of next of kin.

The Navy said that the five injured sailors suffered from smoke inhalation and second- and third-degree burns on their hands and faces and were evacuated by aircraft to the Constellation and then to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

While the April 19 fire and explosion aboard the Iowa occurred in one of the battleship's 16-inch gun turrets, the fire on the White Plains was classified as a "main space fire," involving one of the ship's principal engineering compartments.

Although such fires are rare, the danger they pose to ships makes them among the most planned-for mishaps in the Navy.

"There's probably no more demanding drill than those designed to fight main space fires," said Lt. Cmdr. Craig Quigley, a Navy spokesman. "It's a very complex, frequently carried-out drill, with very precise written procedures."

Last August, a similar fire broke out in one of the aircraft carrier Constellation's four main engine rooms while the carrier was on a training mission off San Diego. While the fire caused no deaths, 14 sailors were injured fighting it.

Crew members from the Constellation, which was sailing with the White Plains on Tuesday, aided in the ship's firefighting efforts, Navy officials said.

The White Plains, built by the National Steel and Shipbuilding Co. of San Diego, was launched on July 26, 1966, and commissioned into active service on Nov. 23, 1968.

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