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Civilian Fatality Prompts Study on Future of Bombing Range in Puerto Rico

by Carol Rosenberg

June 12, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE MIAMI HERALD

Responding to Puerto Rican ire over a fatal U.S. training accident, the Navy has indefinitely halted live fire on the island of Vieques -- and President Clinton has ordered a study that will question whether the Navy needs its prime bombing range in the Atlantic, the Pentagon said Friday.

David Sanes, 35, a Vieques native who was working as a civilian security guard, was killed April 19 when a U.S. jet mistakenly bombed a watchtower where he worked. Three other people were wounded in the blast.

In response, Clinton instructed Defense Secretary William Cohen to name a four-member panel to examine the mishap.

The idea was proposed by Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello, who wanted an independent investigation of the mishap -- and outside scrutiny on whether the range should be closed. Rossello will visit the Pentagon on Monday, Navy sources said.

Panel members are:

  • Chairman Frank Rush, acting assistant secretary of defense for force management.
  • Lee Hamilton, former Democratic congressman from Indiana and former chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
  • Richard Neal, a retired Marine general who was the corps' former assistant commandant.
  • Diego Hernandez, a retired vice admiral who was commander of the Navy's Third Fleet.

Meanwhile, Navy Secretary Richard Danzig ordered a study and assessment of the Vieques operation, formally called the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility.

"The review will address whether operations at Vieques should continue and if alternative sites for these operations exist,'' according to a Pentagon announcement.

If the study finds that the Navy still needs the operation, it said, it will examine ``possible modifications to operations to lessen the impact on the people of Vieques, including constraining or eliminating live fire.''

Danzig has ordered U.S. military personnel to cease using live fire and exploding live ordnance until the study is complete.

The announcement said the study could be done as soon as July, to be forwarded to the Rush panel along with Danzig's comments.

Danzig described the study Friday as trying to balance U.S. national security needs and the concerns of the people of Puerto Rico.

The Pentagon announcement characterized Sanes' death as a ``tragic accident'' and said it was the only fatality at the Vieques range since training began there in the 1940s.

The Navy's study will be led by Vice Adm. William Fallon, the Navy's Second Fleet commander, and Lt. Gen. Peter Pace, commander of U.S. Marine forces in the Atlantic.

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