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Coast Guard suspends search for missing Japanese mariners

HONOLULU (AP) — The USS Greeneville might not have been in the Pacific Ocean at all the day it collided with a Japanese fishing vessel had the Navy not scheduled a private tour for 16 civilians, officials said.

When the Greeneville was selected for the civilian tour in January, the nuclear attack submarine was set to be at sea for several days of training for an upcoming propulsion examination.

The training exercise was canceled just days before the Feb. 9 civilian cruise, but Navy officials decided to go forward with the guest embarkation because the visitors already were in town.

"At this point, the guests were on the island. We were already moving forward with doing the embark," said Navy officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"It's not a wasted day at sea," the source added. "Anytime you can take a boat to sea, it's the best training you can have."

Preliminary investigative reports into the collision have questioned whether the number of civilians in the submarine's control room may have inhibited the crew from properly doing its job.

The Navy is scheduled to open hearings into the accident Monday at Pearl Harbor.

Four commercial fishing students, two teachers and three crewmen of the Ehime Maru are believed to have gone down with the ship when the submarine collided with it Feb. 9 while conducting a rapid-ascent drill nine miles from Honolulu. Twenty-six people from the trawler were rescued.

The Coast Guard called off the search Friday night. The students' school, Uwajima Fisheries High School, and local government officials in Japan said they had no comment on the Coast Guard's decision.

The trawler had been located Feb. 16 at a depth of 2,000 feet.

The Navy hearings will focus on the actions of the Greeneville's officers.

Navy lawyers were reviewing requests from attorneys for the Greenville's captain, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, and the officer of the deck, Lt. j.g. Michael Coen, seeking "testimonial immunity" during the hearings.

Such immunity would prevent military lawyers from prosecuting the officers based upon their own testimony, according to military legal expert Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice in Washington. However, they still could face prosecution based upon the testimony of others.

Waddle's civilian lawyer, Charles Gittins, said Saturday that immunity would allow the commander to testify "without waiving his rights later to present a full and vigorous defense in the event charges are referred to court-martial.

"Cmdr. Waddle is intent that the court of inquiry be thorough, fair and transparent," Gittins said.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which also is investigating, released information Friday showing the surface and subsurface movements of the two vessels.

The submerged Greeneville raced past the slow-moving Ehime Maru before a course reversal that ended in their deadly collision, according to the information, which was based on a preliminary tape provided by the Navy of the Greeneville's sonar and navigation data.

Navy submarines have been involved in at least five other collisions with surface vessels since 1992, according to Navy data. Two involved the USS La Jolla, a nuclear attack submarine in the same Pacific Fleet squadron as the Greeneville.


On the Net:

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