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One dead, one injured in Navy accident

By
MITCHELL MILLER

NORFOLK, Va. -- An officer was killed and a sailor was injured when the USS Iwo Jima was accidentally shelled by another ship conducting gunnery exercises 80 miles southeast of Norfolk Naval Station, the Navy said Thursday.

Shells from the amphibious cargo ship USS El Paso struck the bridge and flight deck of the Iwo Jima, an amphibious assault ship, at about 5:30 EDT Wednesday, said Lt. Cmdr. John Lloyd, a U.S. Atlantic Fleet spokesman.

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The officer and sailor, who were not immediately identified, were standing on the starboard bridge of the Iwo Jima when they were hit during the firing, Lloyd said. He did not know how many other personnel were on the bridge and deck below during the exercise.

'It was either the projectiles or the shrapnel that struck the officer and seriously injured the sailor,' Lloyd said, adding it was not clear how many projectiles were fired in the incident.

The El Paso was testing its Phalanx defense system at the time of the accident. The Phalanx guns are designed to throw up a screen of flying lead -- the 20mm guns have six barrels firing 3,000 rounds a minute -- to knock down incoming missiles as a last line of defense.

The two ships were 10 hours into a six-month deployment to the Mediterranean Sea when the accident occurred.

Lloyd said a plane was towing an airborne target ahead of the El Paso at the timeof the incident, and the Navy's investigation will examine whether either ship or the target-towing plane was not properly positioned.

An investigation team will be flown out to the ships to conduct the inquiry, Lloyd said.

The injured sailor, a petty officer first class, was treated by doctors on the Iwo Jima before being airlifted by helicopter to Portsmouth Naval Hospital. He was listed in stable condition Thursday with an elbow wound, Lloyd said.

The Iwo Jima sustained little or no damage. Lloyd said gun systems aboard the El-Paso had been tested in pre-deployment work without any problems.

The ships were steaming toward the Mediterranean as scheduled Thursday, Lloyd said.

The two ships and three others left the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base and Norfolk Naval Station Wednesday morning as part of the Mediterranean Amphibious Ready Group 1-90. The El Paso can carry 240 troops in addition to its 356-man crew, while 1,900 Marines can be carried on the Iwo Jima, which has a crew of about 750.

Seven other Norfolk-based ships left port as scheduled Thursday as part of a separate carrier battle group, the Navy said.

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