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The Associated Press

Vieques Worker Recalls Accident

August 17, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES -- William ``Butch'' Duncan was there when the battle for Vieques began.

A veteran target controller in the Navy's bombing range, Duncan was near the radio inside an observation tower the night of April 19, 1999, watching controllers outside as they directed two F-18 planes toward a simulated convoy of trucks about three miles away.

Suddenly, and surprisingly, the roar of one of the jets was audible over the tower.

``I looked up and the (controller) was yelling, `Abort! Abort!' so I hit the floor,'' Duncan said, recalling the fateful night. ``The windows came in and all the equipment went flying.''

Two 500-pound bombs had been dropped off-target. The first exploded about 125 feet from the tower and the second about 30 feet away, said Steve Shegrud, chief of the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility.

Duncan said the blast threw him across the room, an observation deck about 15 feet wide. Along with three others, he suffered only minor injuries.

``We had fires going. I got on the radio and was trying to get (medical helicopters).''

Other employees rushed outside and found civilian guard David Sanes -- a resident of the Puerto Rican island -- injured but alive.

Sanes had been patrolling a fence and was caught between the two bombs, Shegrud said.

He died before rescue teams arrived, and his death set off a year of protests that have resulted in severe restrictions on the Navy's training on Vieques, including a ban on live bombs.

A May 1999 Navy report said the pilot mistook the observation tower for the target. Because the two airplanes had broken formation on a previous pass, the controller mistook one for the other and cleared the pilot to drop his bombs, the report said.

The Navy has since installed radar screens, improved the speaker system outside the tower and painted the building with a red-and-white checkerboard pattern to improve its visibility.

The Navy has long refused to identify the people working that night, but on Wednesday Navy spokesman Lt. Jeff Gordon confirmed that Duncan was present. Duncan, 48, works for ITT Industries, a federal contractor.

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