Sub captain admits he's to blame for crash

Wednesday, March 21st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii – Cmdr. Scott Waddle, the captain of the USS Greeneville, took full blame Tuesday for the submarine's fatal collision with a Japanese fishing ship last month.

But the skipper also fought to save his career and the reputation of his crew in a dramatic, surprising appearance before a Navy court investigating the accident.

Cmdr. Waddle decided to tell his side of the Greeneville's collision at sea to the Navy's court of inquiry in sworn testimony, even at the risk of having military authorities use it against him during a court-martial. He had asked for partial immunity, but the Navy denied his request late Monday.

For hours inside a small courtroom, as he faced teary family members of some of the nine Japanese seamen and students who were killed in the collision, Cmdr. Waddle spoke with remorse about the incident while disputing some of the accusations of misconduct that Navy investigators have made against him.

"I was trying my best to do the job I was assigned," Cmdr. Waddle, who's from Austin, told the three admirals presiding on the Navy's court, adding that his mistakes on the day of the accident were "honest and well-intentioned."

The admirals, who have focused on Cmdr. Waddle's actions since the rare public inquiry began, again did not let him off easy. At one point, when the skipper said he was shocked to learn from crew members that it was common on the Greeneville for inexperienced sonar operators to stand watch without supervision, Vice Adm. John Nathman interrupted his testimony.

"Well, captain, it was your boat!" he said.

Cmdr. Waddle's testimony culminates what for the Navy has been a harsh two-week examination of one of its worst accidents at sea in many years.

Before the Feb. 9 collision on a hazy afternoon off the coast of Honolulu, Cmdr. Waddle, 41, had been a rising star in the Navy's Pacific fleet. Now, he could soon a face a court-martial bringing punishments that range from jail time to loss of retirement benefits or rank. He already has been relieved of his command of the Greeneville, a nuclear-powered attack submarine.

The submarine hit the trawler Ehime Maru while demonstrating a rapid surfacing maneuver to a group of civilian guests who were getting a daylong tour. The Japanese ship sank in about 2,000 feet of water in minutes.

Cmdr. Waddle has apologized to relatives of the victims and the ship's captain, and Tuesday he expressed similar regrets to the Navy court. "As commanding officer, I am solely responsible for this truly tragic accident," he said, "and for the rest of my life, I will live with the horrible consequences of my decisions."

Navy investigators have accused Cmdr. Waddle of rushing periscope sweeps, performing unnecessary maneuvers and not running a tight ship on the day the Greeneville set out to sea for the sole purpose of showing off the submarine to guests, a violation of Navy guidelines.

Vice Adm. Nathman on Tuesday told Cmdr. Waddle that on the day of the collision, the skipper had acted as if he had been giving the guests "the E-ticket ride at Disneyland on a submarine."

Crewmen aboard the submarine also have admitted to the court that they made glaring errors in not tracking the Ehime Maru and could be disciplined for them. But Navy rules and tradition hold that a captain, no matter the circumstances, is ultimately responsible for the safe operation of his ship.

Rear Adm. David Stone told Cmdr. Waddle that evidence suggests he ran a "loose organization" on the day of the crash.

"It was not effective planning," the skipper replied. "I don't refute that."

But during his testimony, Cmdr. Waddle also shifted some blame for the accident to seamen aboard the submarine, telling the court, "I didn't micromanage my crew. I empowered them to do their job."

The skipper had been seeking "testimonial immunity" from the Navy, which would have prevented military authorities from using anything that he told the court at Pearl Harbor against him in criminal proceedings. But Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the Navy's Pacific fleet, denied that request.

Cmdr. Waddle's attorney, Charles Gittins, had insisted that the captain would not testify without immunity. That stance abruptly changed Tuesday.

"This court and the families need to hear from me," Cmdr. Waddle said.

Before Cmdr. Waddle took the witness stand, the court of inquiry's top lawyer warned that he is suspected of dereliction of duty, negligent homicide and "improperly hazarding a ship."

Experts in military law were divided over whether the captain ran a legal risk by taking the stand to testify without immunity. They agreed that he ultimately will face a court-martial. But they disagreed over how his testimony Tuesday might be used in such a proceeding.