In an emotional outpouring of support, hundreds of letters and donations are streaming into a private

fund set up for the families of the 47 sailors who were killed in the April 19 tragedy aboard the USS Iowa.The cards and letters come primarily from the southeastern Virginia area near the Norfolk Naval Base, the Iowa's home port. However, letters have come from as far away as New York, Michigan and California.

The often poignant letters range from a message sent by a high-ranking Pentagon official, to handwritten cards done by elementary schoolchildren.

"USS Iowa - America remembers," reads a colorful card by a 1st grader from Lakes Elementary School in Hartland, Mich. The card includes the drawing of a ship.

"We are sorry. We are thinking of you. We want to thank you for making us safe," the card says. "We are here if you need us."

That's the sentiment a 32-year-old financial administrator in Norfolk wanted to convey to Navy families after hearing about the accident. Jeffrey Sweitzer, the son of a Navy man, wasted no time putting his idea into action.

The USS Iowa Fund was set up less than 24 hours after the Navy had announced that the sailors had been killed in a fiery explosion in the battleship's No. 2 gun turret.

"The seed of the idea came in with the thought that this could have happened to anybody," Sweitzer said, sitting at a desk piled with hundreds of letters.

"Living here in Norfolk, it could have happened to anybody in our family or anybody we know."

The morning after the incident took place, Sweitzer met with fellow employees at Shearson Lehman Hutton Inc., in Norfolk, to discuss how to help the victims' families. Within hours a Navy official in Washington had given the OK to start up a special fund.

Sweitzer's employer donated $5,000 to initiate the fund on April 20. The following day the fund had tripled, with $10,000 from the Ronald McDonald Children's Fund.

The first donation to come into the office was made by a battleship veteran and his wife. "I hope this will help a little," the note said. "Our prayers are with the men and the families of the USS Iowa. From an old battleship sailor."

Since that letter was received, more than 400 letters and donations have poured into Shearson Lehman Hutton's office in downtown Norfolk. Several hundred others have made donations at a local mall, a concert sponsored by a local radio station and simply by stopping in the office to anonymously drop off a contribution.

As of April 28, the fund had received more than $42,500, Sweitzer said.

Most of the donations come with a message, with several including letters running more than a page. For some, writing the letters appears to provide an emotional release.

A Vietnam veteran sent in $100 with this note: "Thank you for always being there. Why does it take another loss to remind us? I will remember you and your 47 shipmates. God bless your ship."

The letters are to be turned over to the Navy next week, so that the more than 1,500 sailors aboard the Iowa can take a look at them. Money from the fund will soon be distributed through the Navy and the United Way, Sweitzer said.

The money is currently being held in a interest bearing account.

Sweitzer plans to meet with Navy officials next week to discuss exactly how the money will be distributed to the families.