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Navy fire injures dozens

By MITCHELL MILLER

NORFOLK, Va. -- An electrical fire aboard the helicopter carrier USS Inchon injured at least 36 sailors and civilians Tuesday in the latest in a series of Navy accidents over the past three weeks, authorities said.

In an unrelated accident, a Navy warplane plunged into the Atlantic Ocean off Florida, but the two Navy fliers aboard were pulled from the sea after safely ejecting.

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The electrical fire broke out at 9:30 a.m. in the ship's shore power distribution box near the hangar deck of the Inchon, said Lt. Cmdr. John Lloyd of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet's Naval Surface Force. The box is in a compartment that allows the ship to take in electrical power while undergoing maintenance, he said.

Twenty-seven sailors were injured, most suffering from smoke inhalation, Lloyd said. Six southeastern Virginia hospitals reported treating nine civilians.

Hours after the accident, the Navy announced that it had made the unprecedented decision to issue a 48-hour halt in operations for all Navy ships, aircraft and training facilities. The 'safety stand down' will include a Navy-wide review of all safety guidelines.

The Inchon was undergoing routine repairs at Metro Machine Corp. in Norfolk. The fire apparently was caused by some type of electrical short circuit, Navy and local fire officials said.

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'When the fire started, it produced very heavy black smoke, which was the insulation burning from the cable and insulation on the ship,' Lloyd said.

The smoke billowed across the Elizabeth River. Smoke inhalation victims were lowered in baskets to the pier, where they were treated by paramedics and taken to local hospitals.

Between 75 and 100 Navy personnel extinguished the fire in about 10 minutes, Lloyd said.

One sailor was in serious condition in Sentara Norfolk General Hospital's Burn Trauma Unit, suffering from smoke inhalation and burns, spokeswoman Deborah Myers said. A second sailor was in 'guarded' condition, also suffering from smoke inhalation burns, she said.

The Inchon has a crew of about 650 sailors and officers. All personnel assigned to the ship were on board when the accident occurred, Lloyd said.

The Inchon went in for maintenance work Sept. 19. The work was scheduled to be completed in December.

Meantime, Atlantic Fleet officials said a Virginia Beach-based F-14 Tomcat crashed 60 miles northwest of Key West, Fla., but the two crewmen safely ejected before the plane hit the water.

A Navy spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Mike John, identified the pilot as Lt. j.g. John Burns, 26, of Virginia Beach, and the radar intercept officer as Lt. Donovan Williams, 31, also of Virginia Beach.

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There was no preliminary indication that mechanical problems caused the incident, John said.

The aircraft was in Florida conducting routine air combat manuevering training. The pilot was a student in training and the radar intercept officer was his instructor, John said.

The airmen were rescued by a SH-3 helicopter based at the Key West Naval Air Station.

The fliers were in good condition at a naval hospital in the Florida Keys, John said.

Navy officials did not immediately know what caused the plane to go down, and the incident was under investigation.

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