ABOARD THE USS TRIPOLI, Northern Persian Gulf -- The flagship in one of the most extensive mine-sweeping operations since the Korean War struck a mine off the Kuwaiti coast before dawn Monday, ripping a 16- foot-by-25-foot hole 10 feet below the water line and flooding several compartments.
An hour after the blast aboard the helicopter carrier USS Tripoli, the ship received word that the USS Princeton, a Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruiser, struck a mine floating about 10 miles away.
No serious casualties were reported on the Tripoli. Information on possible casualties aboard the Princeton, thought to be one of the U.S. warships guarding the minesweepers, were unavailable aboard the Tripoli.
'We've encountered a number of mines. It appears to be a very complex minefield that we struck this morning,' Capt. Bruce McEwan said in a videotape played on the ship. 'The ship is stable. ... The ship is at no risk.'
The Tripoli, an Iwo Jima-class helicopter carrier, struck a mine at 4:36 a.m. The blast jarred the entire ship awake. Moments later, the vessel went to general quarters with all hands ordered to report to battle stations.
The explosion left the vessel dead in the gulf as work crews struggled to assess the damage, shore up the 16-by-25-foot hole in the forward starboard section of the hull and pump out water that flooded a diesel room, a pump room and a dry storage locker on three different decks.
At least some of the water came from ruptured firefighting lines, damage control officers said. Water also was leaking into two other rooms, including a magazine where ammunition was stored.
'We're just trying to shore up (the hole in the ship), trying to get it strong there so we can hold our own and move away from the minefield, ' said Van Cavin, 30, of San Diego, the ship's damage control officer.
The Tripoli remained dead in the water for several hours, with crewmen worried about its fate. The executive officer said half a dozen mines were thought to be in the water ahead of the ship and three were marked by smoke canisters for disposal by underwater demolition teams dispatched from the carrier.
Meanwhile, British and U.S. helicopters from other ships circled above the carrier continuing the mine search, spotting half a dozen possible mines and marking them with smoke for further investigation.
It could not be learned Monday if the mines were floating contact mines or influence mines. McEwen said the mine that hit the Tripoli appeared to be moored just beneath the surface, and said the mine watch on deck at the time of the explosion could not be blamed for not seeing the devices.
Seven hours after the blast, partial power was restored to the Tripoli, but officials said they did not know the extent of the damage and said they were unsure if the vessel could be repaired in the gulf or would have to be towed elsewhere.
Damage control crews wearing breathing apparatus and fire retardant flash hoods moved in and out of the mine-damaged areas while at least two pumps drained off sea water and fans blew paint and thinner fumes from below deck.
The Tripoli is the flagship of the U.S. mine countermeasures group, which comprises the helicopter carrier loaded with air-towed mine- sweeping sleds, four U.S. mine-sweeping vessels and five Royal Navy mine sweepers. The group was being protected by a screen of U.S. warships that apparently included the USS Princeton.
'I'm not aware of an effort of this scale since the Korean War,' said Capt. David Grieve, commodore of the mine-sweeping group. He said the contact mines previously found are based on a 1700 Russian design that typically costs less than $500.
'They are extremely cheap and very effective. That's some of the reasons the mine-sweeping forces are important. Look at what you can tie up or deny based upon a very old technology, anyway, a very simple weapon. And we're mounting this whole effort to go in here and make sure and drive around in the water,' Grieve said.
Officials aboard the ship would not say whether the mine-sweeping operation was being conducted to clear the way for an amphibious landing by U.S. Marines once the long-awaited ground war begins.
But any sort of amphibious landing would probably require such an operation and Grieve informed a group of visiting combat correspondents that the task force was heading west and clearing a 20 mile swath off the coast of Kuwait.
Chief Hospital Corpsman Chris Delluto, 37, of San Diego, said nearly 30 crewman were taken to the carrier's medical ward, most of them requiring cleaning after being soaked in paint. More than four hours after the explosion, only three people were still in the ward for observation.NEWLN: more