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100 men killed and 125 injured by blast aboard USS Bennington

By James Baar

QUONSET POINT, R.I. -- Approximately 100 men were killed and 125 injured early today in a blast-punctuated fire that turned the inside of the big aircraft carrier Bennington into an inferno.

Casualties were placed at those figures early this afternoon by Capt. William F. Rayburn, commander of the Bennington, after he brought his fire-scarred ship to port here.

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Rayburn said 25 or 30 of those hurt have more than minor injuries. There was no indication as to when the Navy would release the names of the dead and injured.

The fire, which raged out of control for four hours, was touched off by a steam turbine generator explosion that rocked the mighty warship while it was sailing off the Eastern coast toward this home port.

Veritable Death Ship

The engine room "looked like hell," said Aviation Electricians Mate Third Class Francis Both of Phoenixville, Pa. "Everyone I pulled out was dead."

The carrier, affectionately dubbed "Big Ben" by its 2,300 officers and crew, docked here about several hours after the fire -- a veritable death ship.

The disastrous blaze broke out at 6 a.m., chow time for many of the men. It roared through the portside forward section, trapping scores of ship personnel.

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At the time of the fire the Bennington was 75 miles south of Newport, R.I.

The disaster shocked the nation.

President Offers Sympathy

In Washington, President Eisenhower offered his sympathy to families of those who were killed or injured. The President said a Navy inquiry into the disaster would begin immediately.

Rayburn praised his crew. He said they reacted with remarkable feats of heroism.

One seaman, Bruno Costantini, Detroit, Mich., said many of the men were in their bunks when the fire started. Costantini said he raced to the hangar deck and helped pull out 10 of his shipmates.

It was the worst peacetime naval disaster since April 26, 1952, when the carrier Wasp and destroyer Hobson collided with loss of 176 lives.

The Navy announced those casualty figures shortly after 10 a.m. CST.

It was announced Secretary of Navy Charles S. Thomas was flying from Washington to investigate the tragedy.

Names of the dead and injured were withheld temporarily.

A big emergency corps of doctors and nurses was on hand as the stricken carrier arrived here after what was to have been a routine training cruise from Norfolk, Va.

Some of the more seriously injured had been removed from the Bennington at sea and flown by helicopter to Newport, R.I., for hospitalization.

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Norfolk to Quonset

The Bennington, a 10-year-old warship displacing 33,100 tons and 899 feet long, was en route from Norfolk, Va., to Quonset when the disaster occurred.

Cause of the fire was not disclosed in meager reports released by the Navy here.

It was not known how many men were aboard the Bennington at the time of the fire, but its wartime complement was 2,500.

It was recalled here that the Bennington had an explosion aboard last year while returning from a similar training cruise.

Fly Doctors to Carrier

Additional medical personnel were flown to the stricken vessel from the Quonset Naval Air Base. The destroyer USS Potter was prepared to transport more doctors and nurses if needed. The Navy said that if the destroyer went out it might evacuate some of the more seriously hurt.

First announcements released by the Navy here said that the fire had been controlled. Extent of damage was not indicated.

Built at the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard and commissioned in late 1944, the Bennington was named for the Battle of Bennington which occurred in Vermont during the American Revolution.

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