Witnesses said yesterday that the landing officer of the aircraft carrier Nimitz tried to wave off a Marine jet before it crashed shortly before midnight Tuesday, causing what is believed to be the worst disaster in the history of naval aviation.
The pilot of the EA6B electronics warfare plane ignored or did not hear the radio warnings from the Nimitz that he was not lined up properly for an always tricky night landing, should pour on power to pull away from the carrier and try another approach, said Capt. Jack Batzler, commanding officer of the 92,000-ton warship.
Batzler was on the bridge when the jet veered to the right and smashed into a line of aircraft parked on the edge of the landing deck, setting off a geyser of fuel-fed flames that killed 14 men and injured 48 others, some critically.
He "was not in the right position," said Batzler at a news conference conducted aboard the Nimitz after the ship docked in Norfolk yesterday afternoon before a somber welcoming crowd.
The EA6B started with a fairly standard approach, slightly high. The aircraft drifted to the right, hit three A7 jet attack planes parked to the right of the landing deck and then plowed into an F14 jet fighter.
Said Vice Adm. Gus Kinnear, commander of Atlantic naval air forces, after watching films of the fatal approach: "Pilot error would be an obvious thing to jump to, but we don't for certain know if any other factors might have been involved."
The pilot and two crewmen in the EAaB were killed in the fiery crash on the Nimitz, which was conducting a night training exercise 60 miles off Jacksonville, Fla. The others killed were working on the deck. The Navy has said it may take as long as six months to come to a formal conclusion on the cause of the accident.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin O'Brien, who helped in what the Navy considers the valiant effort to put out the flames, which was successful after 70 minutes, said the off-course jet "came in and clipped a helicopter, and then turned across a tractor and decapitated the person in it.
"It clipped three A7s, went broadside into an F14 and finally flipped over onto the catwalk," O'Brien said. "Three people in the crash-and-salvage crew were killed when a missile went off 10 feet away. I was 30 feet away, but it blew in the other direction.
Aviation technician Dale Stewart, 19, appearing at the shipboard news conference with a bandaged hand, missing tooth and stitches in his chin, said he was lying under an aircraft, servicing it, at the time of the crash.
"There was just one big boom," he said. "It all happened so fast. All you could see was flying pieces of aircraft."
The tragedy aboard the Nimitz created a wave of sadness and sympathy. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger was "completely bowled over by the sadness" of it all, said his spokesman, Henry E. Catto Jr., yesterday.
Marine Lt. Laurence Cragun, father of an 18-month-old girl, was apparently hurled from his EA6B jet into the ocean as it crashed. Navy officials said the Nimitz searched for his body that night but could not find it.
He was an electronics officer in the plane and his seat, apparently ripped out by the impact, was missing from the aircraft.
Besides Cragun, the Navy listed as dead: Marine Capt. Elwood M. Armstrong, Havelock, N.C., who was aboard the plane; Marine 1st Lt. Steve E. White, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., pilot of the plane; ABH3 Robert W. Iser, 22, Richfield, Minn.; Airman Apprentice Thomas E. Barnhart, 18, Cleveland; Fireman Dennis Driscoll, 21, Irvington, N.J.; Airman Patrick D. Louis 21, Westland, Mich.; AO3 Lewis J. McLaurin, 22, Laurel, Miss.; Airman Alberto Colon, 21, Brooklyn; Airman Frank J. Swider Jr., Providence, R.I.; Airman Recruit Jackie L. Gothard, 22, Casper, Wyo.; Airman Recruit Peter Iannetti, 21, Hopedale, Mass.; AEAN Ronald Wildermuth, 19, Westerville, Ohio, and Airman Arturo Hinojosa, 25, San Antonio.