Battleship Back Home In Norfolk Quiet Welcome For Iowa's Crew

Posted: April 24, 1989

NORFOLK NAVAL BASE, Va. — The USS Iowa, one 16-inch gun hanging cockeyed and its surviving crew standing at attention in dress whites and black armbands, slid into home port yesterday afternoon.

The battleship passed the buoys at the entrance to the sprawling harbor just before 5 p.m., met by a fleet of tugboats and an escort of pleasure craft and pelicans. The great gray ship stopped off the end of its berth at Pier 5, pivoted like a huge pinwheel and was dragged bow first into port.

A crowd of slightly more than 5,000 broke into cheers as the Iowa slowed to a halt and lines were tossed ashore. The crew, "manning the rails" in full

dress whites, stood at attention and showed no emotion.

It was more "subdued" than most Navy homecomings, Chief Petty Officer Michael Maus said. Besides the black armbands and the flag at half-mast, there was none of the normal cheering or tossing of hats from the crew, he said.

The No. 2 gun turret showed little evidence of the explosion that killed 47 sailors Wednesday morning, though it was still turned to starboard in firing position. The left and right guns were elevated; the center gun pointed slightly down.

The Iowa's 1,575 crewmen waited quietly while the crowd was allowed onto the pier. Several family members ran ahead, screaming out names and waving to the ship. A few waved placards - "Zach!" "Daniel, We Love You!" "Welcome Home USS Iowa" - and others held helium balloons that tossed in the wind.

Once on deck, a few women took their husbands or sweethearts by the hand and led them to the far side of the deck, away from cameras and onlookers. A few couples walked arm in arm, crying softly.

After brief reunions, the crewmen accompanied their loved ones ashore and the Iowa was left almost empty.

The families of those who did not come ashore at Norfolk - the bodies are still being examined by forensic experts at the military mortuary in Dover, Del. - were to take part in a memorial service this morning.

President Bush, scheduled to arrive at 8:50 a.m. aboard Air Force One, was to take part in the 9 a.m. service, speaking to an expected 3,000 people in a hangar at the base's naval air station.

Only after the President has returned to Washington late this morning are members of the Iowa's crew, including Capt. Fred P. Moosally, scheduled to publicly answer questions about the accident for the first time.

The only eyewitness account of the blast has come from Vice Adm. Jerome L. Johnson, who happened to be aboard the Iowa at the time and spoke to reporters in Puerto Rico last week.

Also aboard the Iowa for yesterday's homecoming was Rear Adm. Richard Milligan and his six-member investigative team, charged with uncovering what caused the deadly explosion in turret No. 2.

Naval officials in Norfolk and Washington confirmed that they had begun to narrow the search down to some point during the loading of the turret's three 16-inch guns.

But investigators remain uncertain about what set off the 550 pounds of gunpowder - whether it was a mechanical failure or a human mistake.

Milligan's final report is not expected for six or seven weeks, a naval spokesman said.

The Iowa, one of only four battleships left in the Navy, was the flagship for weeklong training exercises in the waters off Puerto Rico last week. The explosion occurred as the ship was preparing a test firing of turret No. 2 in preparation for a more extensive training operation the next morning.

Each of the Iowa's gun turrets is a fully armored, six-story cylinder sunk into the battleship's deck. Each turret has three guns, and each gun its own separate "gun room" in which the rifles are loaded.

The fire erupted after Moosally gave the turret's crewmen permission to begin loading its three massive rifles, but before the loading had been completed and the order to "shoot" was given.

The blast apparently occurred in the gun room of the middle gun; firefighters who doused the blaze found that the left and right guns were fully loaded and closed in preparation for firing.

The blast surged down the turret's interior elevator shaft, which carries the silk bags of powder up from the magazines in the turret's lowest level. This indicates, naval officials said, that the loading was still under way when something set off the powder - that is, that the gun room's crewmen were taking the powder bags from the shaft and putting them into the center rifle barrel.

There were 58 men inside turret No. 2 at the time of the explosion. Only 11 of them, all from the magazine at the turret's bottom, survived the blast.

One of them - Gunner's Mate 3d Class Kendall L. Truitt - was scheduled to join Moosally in a press briefing this afternoon.

Truitt's will be the first public account of what happened inside the turret, although officials stressed that he was far from the level where the explosion apparently took place.

Also set to take part in today's briefing were the Iowa's executive officer, Cmdr. John P. Morse, and its weapons officer, Cmdr. Robert J. Kissinger.

Memorials were sprouting up around the Hampton Roads region during the weekend, from a red-carpeted floral display downtown to signs of condolence outside numerous area businesses. A white, five-gallon bucket for donations to

families of the dead sailors was half-filled with bills and coins beside a downtown Norfolk memorial display.

More than 200 area hotel rooms have been given free to Iowa family members. Groceries have donated food, cleaners have offered free dry cleaning, others have provided free rental cars, phones and transportation.

Two "Sprint" teams - the Navy's psychological counseling units - have been working since Thursday, one group on board the Iowa to counsel any crew members who seek it and another counseling family members in Norfolk.

The Navy kept reporters and cameramen isolated on the end of Pier 5 and allowed no interviews yesterday with crew members or families.

"What the Navy is trying to do is preserve the dignity of the event," said base spokesman Capt. Steven Karalekas. "It's really a solemn event, after all."

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