The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Wednesday, July 3, 1996               TAG: 9607030463
SECTION: FRONT                   PAGE: A1   EDITION: FINAL 
                                            LENGTH:   86 lines


A Norfolk-based warship punched through high seas and thunderstorms to the aid of an explosion-wracked merchant ship off Africa's Atlantic coast earlier this week, beginning a 36-hour rescue that required Navy SEALS to rapel from helicopters to the stricken ship's decks.

The amphibious ship Ponce's charge to the scene came after blasts and fire killed three crew members of the Bahamian-registered merchantman and injured most of the 27 others aboard.

Its heroics ended late Tuesday, with the Ponce ferrying two severely injured crew members to a hospital in Sierra Leone.

``It really went exceptionally well,'' said Capt. Leon Mahoney, the Ponce's commanding officer. ``It took us 12 hours to get there, but we got the helicopters there within seven hours by pushing them out ahead.''

The episode began early Sunday with an explosion in a closet containing cleaning solvents aboard the Borrenmill, a 38,000-ton, 550-foot bulk carrier.

The ship's chief engineer and two other crew members were killed, and other mariners suffered smoke inhalation, cuts and burns as they battled a blaze in the ship's superstructure.

Another nearby merchant ship, the Mount Jo Ebony, reported seeing the Borrenmill on fire and provided aid, said Mahoney, but soon requested additional help from the Rescue Coordination Center in Norway.

The call was relayed to the Ponce at about 9:15 a.m. Sunday. ``We headed out at top speed,'' the captain said. ``We launched the helos at 90 miles out at (4:15 p.m.)''

Two CH-46E helicopters took off from the landing platform dock ship, piloted by Marine aviators and carrying eight SEALs and supplies.

``We were in some pretty bad weather, with a pretty good headwind, thunderstorms and rain in the area,'' Mahoney said in a telephone interview from the Ponce.

``The Marine pilots really did a super job in flying through that stuff. When they punched through the area into the vicinity of the vessel it was fairly calm and they were able to press on.''

When the choppers reached the ship about 5:30 p.m. Sunday, the Borrenmill was dead in the water, its crew exhausted and injured, its living quarters and bridge heavily damaged.

SEALs boarded the ship using ropes slung from the helicopters because the Borrenmill had no clear deck on which the choppers could safely land, Mahoney said.

Once aboard, the Navy commandos set up a medical station in the captain's quarters, made certain all fires were out and that the ship was seaworthy, said Senior Chief Petty Officer Dan Shipley, the SEAL Team chief.

Among the injured was the ship's master, a 35-year-old British officer who had been trapped by fire on the bridge and jumped to the main deck, hitting a lifeboat.

The master, who was the most seriously injured, had second-degree burns on his head and hands and an open fracture on his ankle, said Lt. Chad Eller, the Ponce's physician.

``He was most concerned about getting back to his ship and crew. But after a long talk with him, we convinced him to leave,'' Eller said. ``I was really concerned about that foot being an open fracture.''

Shipley said the Borrenmill's master was lucky to be alive: ``He injured his foot in a very, very high fall when he was trapped on the bridge. He jumped an incredible distance, hitting a lifeboat on the way down.''

Shipley, who completed paramedical training at Tidewater Community College last summer, said his team soon realized none of the crew had life-threatening injuries. The three fatalities had occurred during the initial explosion.

The rescuers decided to keep the injured aboard the Borrenmill overnight Sunday.

``It was a pretty eerie night,'' Shipley said. ``Quiet, wet and dreary. It was nice to know the Ponce was right next door with the capability to pull everybody off there.''

The fire had destroyed the crew's clothing, passports and money. The Americans provided the crew with new clothes, food, water and navigation charts.

The Borrenmill remains 190 miles west-northwest of Liberia, where it is expected to be reached by a salvage ship at about midnight tonight, Norfolk time.

The Ponce, which left Norfolk in a hurry June 10, returns to more routine duty off civil war-ravaged Liberia.

The ship, carrying 1,100 sailors and Marines, was ordered to the west African nation to relieve a weary joint task force that had been on station since April. ILLUSTRATION: Map