Navy's Leaky Probe

THE blue-water Navy is red-faced. The Navy's discomfiture is caused by new findings that throw into serious question its conclusions about the explosion last year aboard the battleship USS Iowa. Forty-seven seamen died in a flaming gun turret when a 16-inch gun exploded as it was being loaded.

With what many observers in Congress, the media, and even the Navy itself regarded as unseemly haste, naval investigators zeroed in on a bizarre alleged suicide scheme as the cause of the explosion. According to this theory, gunner's mate Clayton Hartwig ``probably'' sabotaged the gun in his despair over a disappointing relationship. The Navy ruled out the possibility that the explosion was accidental on the basis of what it said were exhaustive mechanical tests.

But the theory always had more holes than a floating gunnery target. The claim that Seaman Hartwig was despondent, unstable, and capable of suicidal behavior was built on flimsy evidence. Also, the Navy never was able to prove the existence of a detonator that, investigators hypothesized, Hartwig purportedly planted among the heavy bags of powder being rammed into the gun.

Last week the Navy's scenario started to ship water. In a test performed at the Energy Department's Sandia Laboratory - at the urging of Congress - a bag of gunpowder ignited in a simulated loading of a 16-inch gun. And the next day the respected General Accounting Office issued a report highly critical of the Navy's investigation and findings.

Navy Secretary Lawrence Garrett halted the firing of the big guns on all four of the service's battleships and reopened the Iowa investigation. Right steps, but belated.

The Navy's flawed probe probably wasn't the result of a deliberate whitewash so much as of an overly self-protective attitude. Whatever the reason, the Navy brass appears to have maligned Hartwig, and they owe his family an apology.

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