WASHINGTON — Gunner's Mate Clayton M. Hartwig, who almost certainly caused the calamitous April 19 explosion aboard the battleship Iowa, was a lonely, suicidal young sailor consumed by destructive fantasies, Navy officials have concluded after a four-month investigation.
Hartwig was "emotionally capable of committing suicide, probably with the intent of killing others also," Vice Adm. J. S. Donnell III said after reviewing the exhaustive Navy and FBI inquiry into the explosion that killed 47.
An FBI personality profile went further, concluding that "Clayton Hartwig died as a result of his own actions, staging his death in such a fashion that he hoped it would appear to be an accident."
The Navy's 1,100-page investigation report offers a riveting, disturbing and in some cases, contradictory, picture of a handsome, outwardly normal sailor whom the FBI characterized as a "troubled young man" who was "emotionally devastated" by the real and perceived rejections of those he befriended and loved.
Hartwig, it was learned during the four-month inquiry, had tried to kill himself while in high school, considered himself an expert in explosives and detonators, kept a scrapbook on ship disasters and owned a handbook that offered explicit prescriptions for exacting violent revenge on one's enemies. He carried a gun in his car and his room at home was filled with military knives and books on war.
Investigators reconstructed the disaster through physical evidence, interviews with survivors and a painstaking review of Hartwig's letters, belongings and comments to fellow sailors, friends and family. They concluded that the blast was the result of an "intentional, wrongful act" that could only have been committed by one person--the 24-year-old Hartwig.
On the eve of the explosion, Hartwig had been rebuffed by a fellow sailor with whom he tried to initiate a "close relationship," investigators said.
Naval investigators found that Hartwig had discussed suicide in the weeks before the catastrophe, noting that his preferred way to die was in an explosion. On one visit home, he told a friend that "if something were to happen to the gun powder (in a 16-inch gun turret), the explosion would be quick and there would be no one left to tell the story."
But while officials pointed an accusing finger at Hartwig, the Navy also found numerous failures of training, discipline, gunnery procedures and maintenance aboard the Iowa. The report recommended possible administrative punishment for several key officers, including the ship's skipper, Capt. Fred P. Moosally, and its executive officer, Cmdr. John P. Morse.
But while one reviewer of the report cited "the number and egregiousness" of the ship's shortcomings, the investigators concluded that none of them caused the explosion.
After being briefed by Navy officials on the findings of the investigation, Hartwig's family called a press conference in Cleveland to assail the report.
"My brother . . . was not a depressed, despondent, suicidal murderer," Hartwig's sister, Kathleen M. Kubicina said. "They have no physical evidence, and they used the word 'probably' in the report. After months of investigation, and after spending $5 million, they are going to tell the American public 'probably?' "
The family's lawyer, Kreig Brusnahan, said that the Navy began its investigation by trying to look for a scapegoat to avoid admitting incompetence.
"The Navy is trying to dupe the American public," he said. "Why didn't he (Clayton) slit his wrists? Why didn't he jump off the ship? Why would he take 46 of his closest friends with him?"
Some shipmates and friends drew a different portrait. One Iowa crew member who befriended Hartwig in the two weeks before the fatal blast said that Hartwig was fascinated by death and often talked of how he would prefer to die.
"We both agreed that explosion would be the best way to die because it was quick and painless," the sailor told agents of the Naval Investigative Service.
Hartwig also confided in this sailor, four days before the fatal blast, that he had attempted suicide and that he was still considering it. "He told me he was having problems, but wouldn't exactly state what his problems were," the sailor told investigators.
The two stayed up well past midnight talking two or three nights before April 19. On several occasions, Hartwig discussed explosives and how primers can set off the bags of powder used to fire the 16-inch guns.
"He told me he wanted to die in the line of duty and be buried in Arlington Cemetery, so he'd be remembered," the sailor recalled.
A girl Hartwig met in 1987 and who corresponded briefly with him described him as "very shy, very self-conscious and lonely." She said that while he was confident in his ability to do his job aboard ship, he had a hard time making friends and had "very little self-esteem."
Another civilian friend characterized Hartwig as a "quiet and self-defeating individual."