U.S. Navy officials blame officers of the USS Stark for a "total collapse" in defending the frigate against the May 17 missile attack in the Persian Gulf that killed 37 sailors, and say an internal Navy review early this year warned that ships of its type are particularly vulnerable to such attacks.

Two Navy reports released yesterday provide dramatic new details about the breakdown in the ship's command and how the vessel's firefighting equipment and physical structure were inadequate to stop the inferno that engulfed the Stark after an Iraqi pilot fired two Exocet missiles into the ship.

The reports told of "heroic" crew members who battled 1,400-degree Fahrenheit temperatures, insufficient oxygen and water supplies and melting polyester clothes to save the warship. One Exocet ruptured water mains for firefighting and protecting the endangered missile storage area.

The reports recommend major changes in the way the Navy builds ships and the equipment and training it gives crews to improve their chances of surviving an attack.

A senior naval official told the seapower subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee yesterday the recommendations would cost a "substantial" amount of money. He also said some of the major structural changes needed to improve the safety of the 51 Perry-class ships will never be made on vessels currently in the fleet because of high costs and the impracticality of retrofitting the vessels.

The two reports, declassified versions of accounts of the incident that changed the Navy's approach to its operations in the Persian Gulf, provided vivid details of the attack and the chaotic hours that followed.

Navy investigators found that the ship's skipper, Capt. Glenn R. Brindel, had been warned about indiscriminate attacks from Iraqi planes before starting his gulf mission, but had not adequately conveyed the potential threat to his officers. Brindel and the chief weapons officer later were allowed to resign from the Navy rather than face court-martial. The ship's second-in-command received a letter of admonition.

Officers were so unconcerned about a possible attack that they began a complicated full-engine-power test at 8:24 p.m., shortly after they had been warned about an Iraqi Mirage F1 fighter jet in the area.

The weapons control console operator left his station to go to the bathroom, the report said, and the weapons officer was reluctant to "lock on" to the unknown jet with the Stark's fire control radar when the plane closed within 40 or 50 miles "because he felt that it might be interpreted . . . as a hostile act."

At 9:04, with the aircraft closer, the Stark radioed its first warning to the warplane.

But three minutes later, the pilot fired the first Exocet missile. A forward lookout spotted a bright light on the horizon and officers began to search for Brindel but couldn't find him. The .50-cal. machine gunner was lying down at his post at the time of the attack, and at 9:08, the second Exocet was launched.

Officers' frantic efforts to activate defensive weapons came too late, and the first Exocet, traveling 600 mph, slammed through the hull, severing firefighting water pipes supplying the forward part of the ship. The missile failed to detonate, but separated into two large pieces. Spewing 300 pounds of flammable propellant, the pieces ripped through a sleeping area where sailors were just settling down, tore through the barber shop and post office and came to rest against the starboard hull.

A few seconds later, a second missile sliced into the hull about eight feet forward of the first. Its warhead exploded five feet inside the hull, causing less damage because the blast vented through the hole created by the first missile. But fiery propellant, the heat of detonation and a continuous oxygen supply combined to "create an immediate inferno in the second deck berthing compartment."

Temperatures rose to 1,400 degrees and acrid black smoke filled nearby compartments. Survivors battled smoke, heat, white hot decks and a severely listing ship.

Radio communications lost, crew members sent distress calls with portable radios from survival kits.

In less than three hours, the ship's 331 oxygen breathing cannisters were exhausted, forcing the crew to stop fighting the fire. Fires reignited in some areas, but another U.S. ship arrived with more supplies.

"By 2:30 a.m. the fire was of such intensity that the firefighting water was burning the firefighters as it flashed to steam," the report said. "Forward, by the missile magazine, the portable fire pump had exhausted its gasoline supply." Water pumps supplied by other U.S. ships were incompatible with outlets on the Stark.

The fires roared upward, feeding off the Stark's structure in a vertical blaze never encountered on a U.S. ship, one report said.

"By now, fatigue was becoming a critical factor in sustaining the firefighting effort, as was the lack of drinking water due to loss of pumps that supplied fresh water," one report said. "{Thirsty} firefighters {drank} water from medical IV bags."

The Navy said many new safety precautions from the internal review will be incorporated in the 445-foot Stark, which is undergoing extensive repairs.

The Navy review panel has recommended that all new ships be designed to survive specific types of attacks.

It also recommended more fire insulation on bulkheads and the undersides of vital decks, smoke curtains, reducing combustible materials, particularly electrical cables, and improved firefighting equipment, including protective clothing and equipment for cutting through decks.