A disabled American ship drifting toward Cuba yesterday triggered a naval "Keystone Kops" escapade in which a U.S. aircrcft carrier was dispatched from port in the Caribbean with such haste that more than 1,100 crew members were left ashore.
The 90,000-ton, nuclear-powered carrier USS Nimitz was sent on an "emergency recall" from St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands because of concern that a potential hostage situation could develop, officials said. Before the episode ended peacefully, however, another mishap apparently left a Cuban warship also adrift.
The incident began when the 150-foot-long oceanographic research vessel Seaward Explorer, which officials said was under charter to the Navy's Oceanographic Command, was disabled with a broken propeller shaft. The ship was reported dead in the water eight miles from Cuba, which claims a 12-mile limit from its coast.
The ship had been conducting a coastal survey with the government of Haiti and was returning to Miami from Port-au-Prince, officials said.
A State Department spokesman said the Cuban government was contacted early yesterday to "make arrangements to keep the ship from crashing on the rocks." A Cuban gunboat arrived on the scene and extended a line to tow the Seaward Explorer, "probably to Havana," one official said.
But other senior officials in Washington were having second thoughts, according to one source, and some were alarmed at the prospect of a U.S. flag vessel being towed to Cuba.
Consequently, the 210-foot Coast Guard cutter Reliance, already in the vicinity, was ordered to the scene and the Nimitz was dispatched to provide protection for the American ship, if necessary.
The huge carrier had left its home port in Norfolk on Nov. 14 and had taken part in training exercises near the American base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before arriving in the Virgin Islands. Because the Nimitz was not scheduled to leave the capital city of Charlotte Amalie until today, a large portion of the 5,000-man crew was ashore. About 1,100 were unable to get back in time, according to a Defense Department official.
When the Reliance arrived to find smoke and fire pouring from the Seaward Explorer, "there was no confrontation, no challenge" between the Cuban and American forces, an official said. But when the tow rope was severed, it apparently fouled the screws of the Cuban vessel, leaving it also dead in the water, according to one official. By the time the Nimitz arrived, the Seaward Explorer was under tow toward Miami, officials said, but it was unclear what had happened to the Cuban ship. The Nimitz was expected back in port to reclaim the rest of its crew.
The carrier's emergency recall, which included broadcasts by the Navy over radio and television in the Virgin Islands, led some residents to believe that war was imminent. One visitor in St. Thomas who called The Washington Post said that U.S. military police were combing the island in an effort to round up the carrier's crew before it left port shortly before noon.