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BUNGLED PROBE OF IOWA EXPLOSION, ACCIDENTS ON SHIPS ERODE IMAGE

Wednesday's fire in an unlikely room in the bowels of the aircraft carrier Midway off Japan was the latest in a series of accidents around the world that have rocked the safety image of the U.S. Navy.

Defense Department officials quickly insisted there was no "systemic" problem with Navy safety, but some officers privately questioned why an explosion hit a storeroom containing spare parts for damage-control equipment.

"It's where equipment is kept to help put out fires. That's one place you wouldn't think it would happen," said a Navy officer, who asked not to be identified.

More than a dozen serious accidents have hit Navy ships at sea during the past year, and last November they led to an unprecedented 48-hour halt in global operations and subsequent orders to tighten safety training and procedures.

The Midway accident killed two sailors and injured 16 in a 10-hour fire after two explosions rocked an area four decks below the flight deck.

The incident followed a fire May 8 aboard the destroyer Conyngham off the coast of North Carolina that killed one crew member and injured several others. And last year, an F-18 fighter jet from the Midway dropped a 500-pound bomb on the guided-missile cruiser Reeves in the Indian Ocean, injuring five sailors.

"Accidents are bound to happen when you have dozens of ships at sea at any one time. If they are different kinds of mishaps, you can't say a key safety factor is being overlooked," said defense analyst William Kaufmann of the Brookings Institution."

But some experts also said the service's image has been battered by what now appears a bungled Navy investigation of an explosion that killed 47 sailors aboard the battleship Iowa in April last year off Puerto Rico.

"They seemed quick to accuse a sailor of causing that (explosion) intentionally. Now a congressional investigation has shown it could well have been an accident," said retired Navy Rear Adm. Gene La Rocque, a director of the private Center for Defense Information and frequent critic of the service.

The environmental organization Greenpeace charged in a recent report that the Navy had suffered 1,596 accidents in the past decade and that more than 600 of them were aboard nuclear-powered submarines.

The Navy did not dispute those figures but said it had been operating nuclear ships since 1955 "without a single major nuclear accident."

"The thing about the Navy is that their ships are always out there. It is the most forward-deployed of our forces," said Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams. "Any accident is obviously a source of concern. But I don't think there's any feeling there is a systemic problem with Navy safety."

Adm. Carlisle Trost, the chief of naval operations, ordered an unprecedented "stand-down" in routine operations for 48 hours last November after accidents that included one ship firing its Phalanx rapid-fire machine gun at another, killing an officer and wounding a seaman.

Other accidents also included the Oct. 29 crash of a jet training plane into the aircraft carrier Lexington in the Gulf of Mexico, killing five people and injuring 19.

A Navy jet also crashed into an apartment complex in Atlanta, killing two people, and a fire aboard the fleet oiler Monongahela in the eastern Atlantic injured nine sailors.

After the brief halt in operations and reports from Navy commanders around the world, Trost said no single thread linked the accidents.

He called for improved compliance with safety procedures, better safety training for supervisors and better delivery of safety equipment to ships.

But retired Adm. William Crowe, who stepped down last year as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned at the time that the accidents would not stop.

"The Navy is out there," he said. "And when you have movement, you have accidents."

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