Errant U.S. bomb kills 6 in Kuwait

5 Americans die in training exercise

March 13, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A U.S. Navy warplane mistakenly dropped a 500-pound bomb on a group of military observers during a training exercise in Kuwait yesterday, killing six people, including five American service members, officials said.

Five other U.S. personnel were injured, officials said. Two were treated at a hospital and released, and three remain hospitalized with injuries that aren't life-threatening.

The accident occurred when a Navy F/A-18 Hornet, flying off the carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Persian Gulf, dropped a bomb during a nighttime exercise involving U.S., British and New Zealand planes.

All of those killed or wounded were military observers on the range to watch the live-fire training, officials said. The only casualty identified was Acting Maj. John McNutt, 27, a member of New Zealand's elite Special Air Services Group.

The names of the others killed or wounded were withheld pending notification of their families. A Pentagon official said two of the U.S. fatalities were from the Army and two from the Air Force. The affiliation of the fifth was not immediately known.

In addition to those who were hospitalized, an unspecified number of military personnel were treated at the scene and released, said the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., the military organization that oversees the Persian Gulf region.

The accident occurred about 7 p.m. Kuwaiti time (11 a.m. EST), at the Udairi range, about 45 miles northwest of Kuwait City and roughly 30 miles from the Iraqi border.

Officials said it was too soon to tell whether the pilot was responsible or whether military personnel on the ground had guided the pilot to the wrong location.

"There's an investigation that will commence very shortly," said an officer with the Central Command. An accident investigation board from the command is expected to arrive in Kuwait this week.

President Bush, who was in Panama City, Fla., to promote his proposed tax cut yesterday, mentioned the accident during a speech to business leaders.

"I'm reminded today of how dangerous service can be," Bush said. "We lost some servicemen today in Kuwait on a training accident. I hope you'll join me in a moment of silence for those soldiers and their families."

Prime Minister Helen Clark of New Zealand said her government was "shocked that a training exercise [could] go so horribly wrong."

"This is a terrible accident, and the New Zealand government is certainly expecting an urgent explanation as to how a large bomb was dropped in an area of a training range where observers were based," she said in a joint statement with Defense Minister Mark Burton.

The F/A-18 was taking part in a routine "close air support" training exercise that involved both day and night training, the Central Command said. Exercises are held every three months to practice air operations against enemy targets positioned near friendly forces.

During the exercises, ground and airborne forces point out targets to fighter aircraft flying overhead. The aircraft then deliver the weapons on the target.

The bomb dropped by the F/A-18 was known as a MK 82, the plane's smallest general-purpose bomb and a part of the U.S. arsenal since the 1950s, Navy officials said.

It is not a precision-guided weapon but rather a gravity bomb that is dropped from a warplane to target vehicles and buildings that are not reinforced with concrete. The bomb can spread fragments up to 3,000 feet, officials said.

Allied aircraft from U.S. carriers and airfields in Kuwait have been patrolling two "no-fly" zones in Iraq since shortly after the Persian Gulf war ended in 1991.

Last month, Navy F/A-18s from the Truman, with U.S. Air Force and British planes, attacked radar and communications sites in Iraq.

Several days later, it was determined that nearly half of the radar targets had not been destroyed. The Navy said a computer problem in the Navy's precision-guided missiles used in the attack caused them to land more than 100 feet from their targets.

About 5,000 U.S. military personnel are based in Kuwait. The accident yesterday resulted in the first training death in Kuwait since December 1999, when a U.S. soldier was accidentally shot to death during a routine exercise.

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