Fire in the Turret

TRAGEDIES like the gun-turret fire aboard the battleship Iowa last week, or the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, are all the more horrifying because they are so rare. They are the exceptions that prove the rule - the rule that safety is a central, and remarkably successful, element in America's military and space operations. We lay people tend to take such safety for granted. It's easy to forget the great scientific, technical, and engineering feats that have permitted those in uniforms of one sort or another to handle and safely discharge materials of enormous explosive power.

Whatever went wrong in Turret 2 last Wednesday was extraordinary, for the explosive charges that evidently ignited are, normally, extremely stable and inert until firing begins. The investigation under way will undoubtedly lead to adjustments that will make such accidents even less likely in the future.

Along with countless others around the nation and the world, our hearts go out to the families and friends of the 47 sailors who lost their lives. Ironically, many of those men may not have regarded themselves as particularly brave, as they had so little reason to suspect that their lives were at risk during a peacetime exercise. Yet their deaths remind us that they, like thousands of other soldiers, sailors, airmen, astronauts, and police officers who each day literally ``play with fire,'' put themselves in harm's way for a cause that benefits us all.

We owe it to them to make sure that the instruments of fire are as safe as human ingenuity can make them.

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