Monday, April 18, 2011
USS Iowa turret explosion
USS Iowa turret explosion
The USS Iowa turret explosion occurred in the Number Two 16-inch gun turret of the United States Navy battleship USS Iowa (BB-61) on April 19, 1989. The explosion in the center gun room killed 47 of the turret's crewmen and severely damaged the gun turret itself.
The first investigation into the explosion, conducted by the US Navy, concluded that one of the gun turret crew members, Clayton Hartwig, who died in the explosion, had deliberately caused it. During the investigation, numerous leaks to the media, later attributed to Navy officers and investigators, implied that Hartwig and another sailor, Kendall Truitt, had engaged in a homosexual relationship and that Hartwig had caused the explosion after their relationship had soured.
The victims' families, the media, and members of Congress were sharply critical of the Navy's findings. The Senate and House Armed Services Committees both held hearings to inquire into the Navy's investigation and later released reports disputing the Navy's conclusions. The Senate committee asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to review the Navy's investigation. To assist the GAO, Sandia National Laboratories provided a team of scientists to review the Navy's technical investigation.
During its review, Sandia determined that a significant overram of the powder bags into the gun had occurred as it was being loaded and that the overram could have caused the explosion. A subsequent test by the Navy of the overram scenario confirmed that an overram could have caused an explosion in the gun breech. Sandia's technicians also found that the physical evidence did not support the Navy's theory that an electronic or chemical detonator had been used to initiate the explosion.
In response to the new findings, the Navy, with Sandia's assistance, reopened the investigation. In August 1991, Sandia and the GAO completed their reports, concluding that the explosion was likely caused by an accidental overram of powder bags into the breech of the 16-inch gun. The Navy, however, disagreed with Sandia's opinion and concluded that the cause of the explosion could not be determined. The Navy expressed regret to Hartwig's family and closed its investigation.
Ordered in 1938 the Iowa was the lead ship of her class of battleship. She was launched on 27 August 1942 and commissioned on 22 February 1943. Iowa’s main battery consisted of nine 16 inch/50 caliber guns.
After serving in both World War II and the Korean War, Iowa was decommissioned on 24 February 1958 and entered the Atlantic Reserve Fleet. She remained in the Reserve Fleet until 1983. At this time, Iowa was to undergo a modernization as part of President Ronald Reagan's "600-ship Navy" plan. Under the command of Captain Gerald E. Gneckow, she was recommissioned on 28 April 1984, one year ahead of schedule. In order to expedite the schedule, many necessary repairs to Iowa's engines and guns were not completed and the mandatory US Navy Board of Inspection and Survey (InSurv) inspection was not conducted at that time.
Almost two years later, beginning on 17 March 1986, Iowa underwent her overdue InSurv inspection under the supervision of Rear Admiral John D. Bulkeley. The ship failed the inspection. Among many other deficiencies, hydraulic fluid leaks in all three main gun turrets, totaling 55 gallons per turret per week, Cosmoline (anticorrosion lubricant) which had not been removed from all the guns, frequent shorts in the electrical wiring, pump failures, unrepaired soft patches on high-pressure steam lines, and frozen valves in the ship's firefighting system. Bulkeley personally recommended to the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral James Watkins, and the Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, that Iowa be taken out of service immediately. Lehman, who had advocated bringing the Iowa-class ships out of mothballs, did not take the ship out of service, but instructed the leaders of the Atlantic Fleet to ensure that Iowa's deficiencies were corrected.
A month after the InSurv, Iowa failed an Operation Propulsion Program Evaluation. A short time later, the ship retook and passed the evaluation. Between September 1988 and January 1989, Iowa conducted little training with her main guns, in part because of ongoing, serious maintenance issues with the main gun turrets.
In January 1989 Iowa's Master Chief Fire Controlman and Gunnery Officer, persuaded Moosally to allow them to experiment with increasing the range of the main guns using "supercharged" powder bags and specially designed shells. Moosally was led to believe, falsely, that top officials from Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) had authorized the experiments. In fact, John McEachren, a mid-level bureaucrat with NAVSEA, had given the go-ahead to conduct the experiments even though he had no authority to do so. McEachren concealed his approval of the gunnery experiments from his superiors.
Several of the officers and non-commissioned officers in charge of the main gun turret crews believed that Skelley's and Costigan's proposed experiments were dangerous, especially because of the age of and numerous maintenance problems with the main guns and gun turrets. Meyer complained to Commander Robert John Kissinger, Iowa's chief weapons officer, about the proposed experiments, but Kissinger refused to convey the concerns to Moosally or halt the experiments.
On 20 January 1989, off Vieques Island, Iowa's Turret One fired six of the experimental shells using the supercharged powder bags. Skelley claimed that one of the 16 inch shells traveled 23.4 nautical miles, setting a record for the longest conventional 16 inch shell ever fired. Although the shells had been fired without serious incident, Meyer and the gun chief for Turret One, told Skelley that they would no longer participate in his experiments. Skelley asked Turret Two's gun chief, Senior Chief Reggie Ziegler, if he could use Turret Two for his experiments; Ziegler refused. Skelley then asked Lieutenant Phil Buch, Turret Two's officer in charge, and Buch acquiesced.
At 08:31 on 19 April, the main turret crewmembers were ordered to their stations in Turrets One, Two, and Three. Thirty minutes later the turrets reported that they were manned, swiveled to starboard in firing position, and ready to begin the drill. Vice Admiral Johnson and his staff entered the bridge to watch the firing exercise. Iowa was 260 nautical miles northeast of Puerto Rico, steaming at 15 knots.
Turret One fired first, beginning at 09:33. Turret One's left gun misfired and its crew was unable to get the gun to discharge. Moosally ordered Turret Two to load and fire a three-gun salvo. According to standard procedure, the misfire in Turret One should have been resolved first before proceeding further with the exercise.
Forty-four seconds after Moosally's order, Lieutenant Buch reported that Turret Two's right gun was loaded and ready to fire. Seventeen seconds later, he reported that the left gun was ready. A few seconds later, Errick Lawrence, in Turret Two's center gun room, reported to Ziegler over the turret's phone circuit that, "We have a problem here. We are not ready yet. We have a problem here." Ziegler responded by announcing over the turret's phone circuit, "Left gun loaded, good job. Center gun is having a little trouble. We'll straighten that out." Mortensen, monitoring Turret Two's phone circuit from his position in Turret One, heard Buch confirm that the left and right guns were loaded. Lawrence then called out, "I'm not ready yet! I'm not ready yet!" Next, Ernie Hanyecz, Turret Two's leading petty officer suddenly called out, "Mort! Mort! Mort!" Ziegler shouted, "Oh, my God! The powder is smoldering!" At this time, Ziegler may have opened the door from the turret officer's booth in the rear of the turret into the center gun room and yelled at the crew to get the breech closed. About this same time, Hanyecz yelled over the phone circuit, "Oh, my God! There's a flash!"
At 09:53, about 81 seconds after Moosally's order to load and 20 seconds after the left gun had reported loaded and ready, Turret Two's center gun exploded. A fireball between 2,500 and 3,000 °F and traveling at 2,000 feet per second with a pressure of 4,000 pounds-force per square inch blew out from the center gun's open breech. The explosion caved in the door between the center gun room and the turret officer's booth and buckled the bulkheads separating the center gun room from the left and right gun rooms. The fireball spread through all three gun rooms and through much of the lower levels of the turret. The resulting fire released toxic gases, including cyanide gas from burning polyurethane foam, which filled the turret. Shortly after the initial explosion, the heat and fire ignited 2,000 pounds of powder bags in the powder-handling area of the turret. Nine minutes later, another explosion, most likely caused by a buildup of carbon monoxide gas, occurred. All 47 crewmen inside the turret were killed. The turret contained most of the force of the explosion. Twelve crewmen working in or near the turret's powder magazine and annular spaces, located adjacent to the bottom of the turret, were able to escape without serious injury. These men were protected by blast doors which separate the magazine spaces from the rest of the turret.
Turret Two's sprinkler system failed to operate automatically. Firefighting crews quickly responded and sprayed the roof of the turret and left and right gun barrels, which were still loaded, with water. Meyer and Kissinger, wearing gas masks, descended below decks and inspected the powder flats in the turret, noting that the metal walls of the turret flats surrounding several tons of as yet unexploded powder bags in the turret were now "glowing a bright cherry red". On Kissinger's recommendation, Moosally ordered Turret Two's magazines, annular spaces, and powder flats flooded with seawater, preventing the remaining powder from exploding. The turret fire was extinguished in about 90 minutes.
Dan Emplit WBFD