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Navy Attributes Fatal Vieques Bombing To Mistakes

August 3, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE NEW YORK TIMES COMPANY. All Rights Reserved.

ROOSEVELT ROADS NAVAL STATION, P.R. -- The Navy said today that errors by a fighter pilot and a ground control officer were responsible for a bombing accident that killed a civilian near a Puerto Rico bombing range on April 19 and led to demands that the Navy abandon the range.

A report found that the pilot, a marine who was not identified, became disoriented at dusk and picked the wrong target, an observation post, killing David Sanes Rodriguez, a security guard.

A Navy ground control officer at the Vieques bombing range cleared the pilot to drop his 500-pound bombs even though he did not make visual contact with the plane, as required by Navy rules, the report said.

Mr. Sanes, 35, a civilian security guard, was standing outside the observation post when the two bombs struck on either side of him, 50 feet away. He was killed instantly. Four others were wounded.

Mr. Sanes's death galvanized resentment over the Navy exercises on Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico. The government of Puerto Rico, a United States commonwealth, has since demanded that the Navy leave Vieques.

''Two people made terrible mistakes,'' said Capt. James Stark, commander of Roosevelt Roads Naval Station. ''There was no willful misconduct on the part of either of those individuals.''

The pilot, who is 26, could face a court-martial, said Lieut. Col. David Wunder, staff judge advocate for the Marine Corps air station in Cherry Point, N.C.

The range control officer, whose name was also withheld, received a letter of reprimand and could face further discipline. He has been transferred from Vieques .

As a result of the accident, the Navy is improving ground-to-air communications and increasing the observation post's visibility, officials said.

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