An explosion set a U.S.-flagged Kuwaiti tanker ablaze in the southern Persian Gulf on Thursday. Shipping sources said the American captain and first mate were killed in the initial explosion. Their names were not immediately known.
The Kuwait Oil Tanker Co. said the U.S. guided-missile frigate Simpson picked up the other 23 crew members after the blast aboard the 69,991-ton oil products carrier Surf City.
Two American crew members were taken by helicopter to Rashed Hospital in Dubai, 30 miles to the south. A hospital official said they were discharged after treatment for minor injuries.
Shipping sources had initially feared the explosion might have been caused by a sea mine left over from the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, which was halted by a cease-fire in August 1988.
But Capt. Ron Wildermuth of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, which is responsible for U.S. naval patrols in the gulf, said there was no indication of outside involvement or mines in the explosion.
"Initial reports indicate the explosion was from an internal source," Wildermuth said.
Gulf shipping sources said a 50-foot hole in the starboard side of the tanker, which was laden with highly volatile naphtha and gas oil, was consistent with a blast from inside the ship.
Lloyds Shipping Intelligence in London said the blast may have occurred during cleaning operations.
The explosion occurred near the Iranian island Abu Musa which Tehran had used as a gunboat base for attacks on gulf shipping during the war. About 500 vessels were attacked by both Iran and Iraq during the conflict, and more than 100 seamen killed.
Kuwait placed 11 of its 22 tankers under the American flag at the height of the gulf war to protect them from Iranian attack.