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Former sailors salute fallen shipmates, 33 years after deadly USS Iowa explosion

Forty-seven sailors were killed when the Iowa's Number Two turret exploded during exercises off the coast of Puerto Rico on April 19, 1989.

NORFOLK, Va. — It was one of the darkest days in U.S. Naval history.

At exactly 9:50 a.m. on April 19, 1989, 47 USS Iowa (BB 61) crew members were killed when the World War II-era battleship's Number Two turret exploded during exercises off the coast of Puerto Rico.

It is said to be one of the Navy's worst peacetime accidents.

Former crew members -- many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder -- said Tuesday that there is a kind of healing that takes place as a result of their yearly gathering at the ship's former homeport of Naval Station Norfolk.

"I've been coming down here for many, many years with my wife and family. It helps up here a lot," said Mark Gustafson, pointing to his head.

It was Roland Cole's first visit to the annual commemoration ceremony.

"It was very nice to see fellow shipmates and family," he said. "It's bringing closure to me and it means a whole lot."

Lonnie Cook agreed.

"I like to see my shipmates," he said. "I like to honor the ones that passed, keep their memory alive."

The initial Navy investigation sought to blame an allegedly suicidal sailor named Clayton Hartwig for sabotage. Later, the Government Accountability Office concluded that the explosion was likely the result of an accidental over-ram of gunpowder.

Chief of Naval Operation Frank Kelso expressed "sincere regrets" to Hartwig’s family and the families of all those killed in the explosion, but the Navy never publicly apologized for the mishandled original probe.

The Iowa was patched up and six weeks later, proceeded on its deployment, wrapping up in December of 1989. The ship was decommissioned in October of 1990 and now serves as a floating museum in San Pedro, California.

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