THURSDAY, MAY 25, 1989

Fire on U.S. Warship in 1975 Reportedly Neared A- Weapons

Admiral Feared Radiation Would Leak

A raging fire aboard the USS Belknap in 1975 came within 40 feet of nuclear weapons aboard the missile cruiser, according to documents released by a private group yesterday.

The collision in the Mediterranean between the Belknap and the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy that touched off the fire was widely reported, but the U.S. Navy did not note the nuclear aspect of the accident at the time or in lists compiled in 1981 and 1986 of incidents involving nuclear weapons.

But a newly declassified cable written by the task force commander shortly after the accident and released by independent analyst William Arkin alerted superiors to the "high probability that nuclear weapons" on the cruiser "were involved in fire and explosions subsequent to the collision."

The cable amounts to the first Navy acknowledgment of the accident's nuclear aspect. When asked about the cable, the Navy yesterday maintained its policy of refusing to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons on its vessels.

Arkin said the Navy had apparently sought to avoid disclosing the number of accidents involving ships bearing nuclear weapons so as not to violate that policy. He released the documents with the environmental group Greenpeace.

Eight sailors were killed and 46 were injured when the Belknap and the Kennedy collided 70 miles off Sicily on Nov. 26, 1975.

Aviation fuel from the carrier rained down on the cruiser, knocking out its fire-fighting equipment. Two other vessels came alongside and extinguished the blaze, said Eugene Carroll, a retired rear admiral who commanded the carrier task force at the time.

"It was pretty hairy out there. As we viewed the Belknap, it seemed to be a fairly total involvement. As it turned out, the fire gutted the midships," Carroll said in an interview.

"We never faced the danger of nuclear explosion in that accident. The warheads are configured in such a way that a fire could not cause a nuclear detonation could spread a lot of radiation around," he said.

His cable, stamped "Secret," said an unknown number of W-45 warheads were aboard the cruiser and alerted the Atlantic Command "of high probability that nuclear weapons on USS Belknap were involved in fire and explosions subsequent to the collision."

The cable also said there were "No positive indications that explosions were directly related to nuclear weapons. No repeat no Kennedy weapons involved. Fires on Belknap diminishing at this time."

It also said that "casualties recovered thus far show no repeat no exposure to radiation" but that "monitoring teams and medical personnel alerted possibility of contamination's."

Arkin, who has been investigating Navy accidents in conjunction with Greenpeace, released the cable, which had been written within hours of the Belknap fire.

Arkin I said other documents showed that there were six W-45 warheads, used with Terrier antiaircraft missiles aboard the Belknap.

The severely damaged ship was returned to service after four years of repair work.

The Navy, responding to Arkin's report, said no nuclear weapons were involved in the fire.