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Day at sea for sub crew and high school boys turns tragic

HONOLULU — The 16 tourists arrived early outside the gates of Pearl Harbor the morning of Feb. 9, just as the sun was coming up. An escort accompanied them to docking berth 21 at the Navy's submarine base and, after a briefing, they climbed aboard the USS Greeneville.

At 8 a.m., the nuclear attack submarine set out across the turquoise Pacific, headed southeast toward the extinct volcano known as Diamond Head.

For the Greeneville's 130 crew members, it was just another training mission. For the ship's skipper, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, it was an opportunity to impress some VIPs working to raise money for a Navy memorial. For Waddle's distinguished guests, it was to be the ride of a lifetime.

Hours later, 13 teen-agers from the Uwajima Fisheries High School in Japan departed Honolulu Harbor on a training mission of their own, sailing aboard the Ehime Maru with two teachers and 20 crewmen to learn how to become commercial fisherman. They, too, headed south of Diamond Head.

At 1:43 p.m., what was to have been a day for education and adventure turned catastrophic when the submarine, performing an emergency surfacing drill, knifed into the Ehime Maru and sent it plunging to the ocean floor. Four students, the two teachers and three crewmen are missing and presumed dead. Late Friday, three weeks later, the Navy suspended its search for the victims.

With a Navy court of inquiry into the accident set to begin Monday, there are still questions to be answered:

—Did the sonar operators and a crewman charged with plotting the bearing, range, course and speed of other vessels report what they knew of the Ehime Maru's position to the ship's officers?

—Why didn't the sub's commander and officer of the deck spot the fishing vessel in periscope sweeps done before the submarine surfaced?

—Did the 16 civilians in the sub's control room, including three who were at various controls when the accident occurred, inhibit the crew from doing its job and somehow contribute to the tragedy?

Waddle; his second-in-command, Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Pfeifer; and the officer of the deck, Lt. j.g. Michael Coen, could face courts-martial depending upon the outcome of the Navy investigation.

"I would like to know ... if the court can really serve justice, and determine who was responsible," says Tatsuyoshi Mizuguchi, whose son, Takeshi, was lost at sea.

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At 12:32 p.m., the Greeneville made sonar contact, picking up sounds from a vessel investigators later confirmed was the Ehime Maru. Monitors inside the sub's sonar room were manned by an operator, a trainee and a supervisor.

When new sonar contacts are received, bearing information is forwarded to the fire control technician, who uses the data to determine the distance, course and speed of the other vessel. He then manually plots its course on a graph in the control room, updating it each time new contact is made.

The 16 civilians had been divided into two groups for much of the day's tour, which typically includes various demonstrations of the capabilities of the ship and its crew.

At some point, all 16 guests crammed into the control room for the last demonstration of the day — an emergency surfacing drill called a ballast blow, which would be done in case of flooding. Sixteen Navy personnel, including a captain who had accompanied the guests on board, also were in the control room, which measures about 15 by 20 feet.

Waddle asked one of the visitors, Texas oil man John Hall, if he'd like to operate the levers that initiate the ballast blow. "I'd love to do that," Hall responded. He moved into position, another guest took the helmsman's seat and a third stood by to sound the alarm. The Navy has said all three were carefully monitored by qualified crew members.

From there, the timeline gets fuzzy.

The National Transportation Safety Board says the Ehime Maru was heading south-southeast at 11 knots, nearly parallel to the southbound course of the submerged Greeneville. The submarine passed the fishing vessel and reversed course to the north to prepare for the surfacing drill.

When the vessels were about two miles apart, the Greeneville made a series of zigzag turns, continuing north-northwest toward the Ehime Maru before ascending to periscope depth five minutes before impact.

The officer of the deck looked through the periscope and reported all was clear. Waddle then looked for himself and also spotted no other vessels.

After 1 1/2 minutes, the Greeneville descended to about 400 feet and blew ballast. Within seconds it burst from the ocean's surface, slicing through the Ehime Maru "like iron being shredded," the fishing boat's captain recalled.

"What the hell was that?" Waddle exclaimed. Peering through the periscope again, he saw the Ehime Maru sinking and men in lifeboats. Waddle told People magazine that when he heard nine people were missing, "I felt as if my very heart had been ripped out of my chest. I called out to God: 'Please save them."'

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An anguished Waddle later told his father that he followed standard procedures.

"I checked with the periscope, the first officer checked, the sonar man checked. There was nothing," the commander said. "I did what I was supposed to do. I went right by the book."

But several things apparently weren't by the book.

The fire control technician told NTSB officials that he stopped manually plotting the position of the other vessel less than an hour before the collision because it was too difficult in the crowded control room. The Washington Post reported that the crewman at one point calculated the Ehime Maru was 2,000 yards from the Greeneville but that he didn't report his findings after the periscope checks revealed no vessels.

A fire control technician on the USS Columbia, a sister sub to the Greeneville, said the manual plotting is standard procedure and that if someone were in his way, he'd simply go around them. Navy officials said it's the ultimate responsibility of the officer of the deck and the commander to ensure all crewmen do their jobs.

Additionally, a sonar repeater in view of Coen and Waddle was not in operation that day. The monitor shows the same bearing information that is available to sonar operators.

As for why the two officers didn't see the sub during periscope checks, one theory, according to The Washington Times, is that if the Ehime Maru was bow-on to the sub during the check, the white fishing vessel may have been obscured by haze and whitecaps.

The Times reported that the Navy's preliminary investigative report concluded Waddle's periscope search was too brief and not high enough to peer over the waves.

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In Japan, the aftermath of the accident has created as much of an uproar as the collision itself.

First, the Navy delayed disclosing that civilians were at some of the sub's controls when the surfacing maneuver occurred. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has since ordered a moratorium on allowing civilians at the controls of any military ship, aircraft or vehicle.

The Japanese then demanded an apology from Waddle, but none was immediately forthcoming because of the pending investigation. The U.S. government responded with a string of apologies from President Bush, Ambassador Thomas Foley and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Last week, the Navy's No. 2 officer flew to Japan to make atonement. And the Japanese finally heard from the man who mattered most, as Waddle met with a Japanese official in Honolulu and tearfully apologized as he delivered 13 letters to the Japanese families and other officials.

Waddle, in his only published interview since the Feb. 9 incident, told People magazine the collision is "a burden I will carry with me for the rest of my life." It "was an accident," he said. "But my submarine caused the accident. I'll never, ever, get over this."


On the Net:

NTSB statement: www.ntsb.gov/Pressrel/2001/010302.htm

Pacific Fleet/Greenville: www.cpf.navy.mil/greeneville.html