ON THE BASIS of ambiguous testimony, pseudo-psychological theorizing and the subjective findings of so-called experts on criminal behavior, the Navy blamed the explosion aboard the USS Iowa on a young gunner's mate from Ohio named Clayton Hartwig. Because he was said to have been "weird," "a loner" and possibly a homosexual, the Navy concluded that he was a likely mass-murderer of the 47 seamen who died. Because he was at times depressed and talked of dying a hero's death and being buried at Arlington, they thought he was surely suicidal. And because he was actually in the gun turret that exploded and knew something about firearms and explosives -- his job, after all -- investigators emphasized that he had the opportunity and ability to instigate the tragedy. A group of FBI psychologists who had never met Petty Officer Hartwig concluded unequivocally that he "died as a result of his own actions, staging his death in such a fashion that he hoped it would appear to be an accident."

Petty Officer Hartwig's relatives and friends protested. So did their representatives in Congress and the members of the House and Senate armed services committees. Now after a GAO investigation and a series of tests by the Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories, another, much more plausible, explanation has been put forward. The new tests show no evidence indicating the presence of a detonating device in the gun turret. In fact, the foreign substances found earlier by the Navy were consistent with such material as steel wool, cleaning fluid and sea water. The fact that identical fragments were found in other gun turrets on the Iowa, and on the battleships New Jersey and Wisconsin, substantiates the conclusion that they had nothing to do with the explosion. In addition, Sandia Lab scientists found that the accident could have been caused by the unintentional high speed overramming of powder bags combined with the impact sensitivity of the powder. This theory was supported when the Navy conducted further impact tests that resulted in combustion. The Iowa investigation will now be reopened.

The Navy has much to answer for. The initial report at least temporarily destroyed the reputation of a man who was apparently not only innocent but a victim himself. The unfounded accusation was a terrible burden on Petty Officer Hartwig's family and on all the families of the men who died. Moreover, in clinging to the preposterous theory that the tragedy was a suicide and mass murder, the Navy failed to follow up on other explanations and made no changes in operations on any of the nation's four battleships. Every sailor who worked on 16-inch guns using the same powder as was used in the Iowa accident has been at risk for more than a year. Only good luck has countered the Navy's scandalous conduct in looking for a scapegoat instead of a solution for the dangerous condition that apparently produced the tragedy on the Iowa and that the Navy has allowed to persist unexamined and unremedied.