Off Coast, FL Explosion On Battleship IOWA, Apr 1989
Asked for initial conjecture on the cause of the explosion, Admiral Johnson said: "We have no real firm idea. It is an unexplained accident at this time."
But he did say the gun crewmen in the turret were qualified to handle their dangerous tasks. About 500 pounds of gunpowder, in five silk bags, was believed to have been in the turret at the time of the explosion.
Admiral Johnson said the crew was exhausted and emotionally drained. The Iowa is expected to arrive in Norfolk on Sunday or Monday.
Admiral Milligan commanded the battleship New Jersey when she shelled Lebanon in 1983. Members of his investigating team include Capt. Edward Messina, who was once a weapons officer aboard New Jersey, and Lieut. Ben Roper, who was a turret officer aboard the same ship. Admiral Milligan now commands Atlantic Fleet cruisers and destroyers.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, on his way back from a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels, promised "a complete and thorough investigation."
Navy spokesmen in Washington said the blast was, in the words of a former battleship gunner, probably a "flash and gas" explosion, meaning that the three 110-pound bags of powder ignited and instantaneously filled the turret with fire and asphyxiating gas.
In 1972 the cruiser Newport News lost 20 men in a turret explosion during shore bombardment of North Vietnam. But John Reilly, a Navy historian, said that accident was different from the one aboard the Iowa. In the case of the cruiser, investigation revealed that a defective projectile prematurely exploded in the breech of the gun.
Initial reports of the Iowa disaster are that a powder charge ignited while the gun breech was being loaded. Mr. Reilly pointed out that the Newport News was equipped with smaller, 8-inch-guns, which were automatically fed from the ship's magazines with ammunition consisting of a high-explosive projectile and a propelling charge encased in a brass cylinder.
This type of ammunition is called "semi-flexed" because projectile and brass cylinder can be separated and kept apart, both for safety and for ease of storage.
The Iowa's guns are fed each round singly, and its propellant is contained in silk bags. The Iowa's gun system is not a case of out-of-date technology, according to Mr. Reilly, but a function of size. "It is impractical to build an automatically firing 16-inch gun with semi-fixed ammunition," he said.
In Washington, President Bush was asked at a meeting with reporters today whether World War II era battleships were obsolete.
"I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that because that kind of powder is put into these turrets in that way that makes a useful platform obsolete," said Mr. Bush, a Navy veteran of Warld War II. "I'm not going to go that far."
Capt. Larry Seaquest, a former captain of the Iowa, said at a Pentagon briefing that the powder for the Navy's 16-inch gunes is stored at a depot in Crane, Ind., and tested for uniformity and reliability at a firing range at Dahlgren, Va.
The former skipper said the powder is highly stable: "If you look at a powder grain, you would find it was an ordinary inert thing; it is not volatile, it is not fragile, it is not dangerous."
The powder used to hurl the Navy projectiles resembles the black powder of muzzle-loading days only in color. The powder used in the battleship guns is very fast burning and produces tremendous explosive pressure.
The former skipper of the Iowa had great praise for the 16-inch guns on the battleships. "This gun remains the finest naval gun in the world," he said. "It was the pinnacle of gun design art, and it is still a front-line system."
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