WASHINGTON -- The Navy, revising its findings about the 1989 explosion that killed 47 sailors aboard the battleship Iowa, has concluded after months of tests and analysis that it does not have definitive proof of sabotage, say Navy officials.
The new findings, which were to be announced today by Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, the chief of naval operations, overturn the Navy's earlier conclusion that the explosion was probably an act of suicidal sabotage by a despondent sailor.
Investigators say a precise explanation for the blast will never be known, but Kelso's conclusions implicitly discredit a separate Navy criminal investigation that focused on the sailor, Clayton M. Hartwig, a gunner's mate second class, as the culprit.
Defense Department officials said Navy officers would deliver a formal apology to the family of Hartwig, who died in the explosion, and to other families of sailors on the Iowa who were killed.
The relatives of Hartwig have staunchly defended him since he was first accused of possible wrongdoing after the explosion.
"What they've done has more or less destroyed the character of my son," Earl Hartwig, the sailor's father, said yesterday from his home in Cleveland. "It would take quite an apology to rectify what they've done to him."
Several lawsuits have been filed against the Navy, including a $40 million claim by the Hartwig family for "intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress."
Kelso's ruling, which was endorsed by Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III, brings closer to resolution one of the most turbulent chapters in the Navy's history, an episode that began when the explosion occurred inside the Iowa's No. 2 gun turret on April 19, 1989.
The six-story turret housed three 16-inch guns, stocks of ammunition and powder charges. The 47-year-old battleship, which has since been decommissioned in a move to cut military spending, was taking part in a training exercise about 300 miles north of Puerto Rico when the explosion occurred.
Experts in Congress sharply criticized the Navy's original conclusions in September 1989. But the Navy never seriously doubted the inquiry's technical findings, not even when Garrett reopened the investigation in May 1990 after gunpowder bags similar to those used aboard the Iowa ignited in laboratory tests.
Even before the testing resumed, however, many senior Navy officials expressed unease about the criminal side of the investigation. Directed by the Naval Investigative Service, the criminal inquiry was flawed in its over-reliance on "circumstantial evidence," Navy officials said.