Admiral defends sub commander's role in collision

Tuesday, March 13th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (AP) _ A senior Pacific Fleet submarine officer said he had a gut feeling that USS Greeneville Cmdr. Scott Waddle was rushing his crew before the submarine fatally struck a Japanese fishing trawler.

But Capt. Robert Brandhuber said he didn't think the crew was being unsafe, so he didn't intervene.

``Did they do it a little quicker than I would do it? Yes, sir,'' he said. ``But did I think it was unreasonable or unsafe the way they were doing it? No, sir.''

Brandhuber, chief of staff of the Pacific Fleet submarine force and escort for 16 civilian guests on the Greeneville that day, was the first eyewitness to testify in a Navy court of inquiry that entered its second week Monday. His testimony continues Tuesday.

Nine of the 35 people on board the Ehime Maru were killed when the high school fisheries training vessel was struck by the Greeneville off Oahu on Feb. 9.

Brandhuber is not a member of the Greeneville crew.

``I don't feel good at all about what happened, and I wish I could have done anything to make it not happen,'' Brandhuber told the three admirals presiding over the inquiry. ``But, sir, I don't believe that the actions of the ship were so unreasonable that it should've necessitated that I step in.''

He said he didn't know Waddle was planning to conduct an emergency rapid-ascent drill, and was surprised when the maneuver began. The drill sent the submarine from a depth of 400 feet into the hull of the Ehime Maru, which sank in 2,000 feet of water.

Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Thomas Fargo has ordered the court to explore several issues, including Brandhuber's actions and responsibilities as the highest-ranking officer on the Greeneville Feb. 9.

The inquiry could lead to the courts-martial of Waddle; his executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Pfeifer; and the officer of the deck, Lt. j.g. Michael Coen. Brandhuber has not been named as a party to the investigation.

Another area being examined is whether the visitors' and Brandhuber's presence may have made Greeneville crew members more wary of speaking up if they thought safety was at risk.

Navy investigators have said Waddle ordered the crew to prepare to go to periscope depth in five minutes, while 10 minutes is the standard. Waddle and Coen conducted an 80-second periscope sweep instead of a more typical three-minute sweep. The periscope search failed to spot the fishing vessel less than 1 1/2 miles away.

While the preparations seemed fast, Brandhuber said he had confidence in the crew because it had just successfully completed a series of highly difficult vertical and horizontal turns.

Brandhuber also said he wondered why Waddle took the submarine to a greater depth than usual with civilians on board but he ``wasn't going to make it an issue with the commanding officers while the visitors were right there.''

Brandhuber's role on the Greeneville was defended by Rear Adm. Albert Konetzni, commander of the Pacific Fleet submarine force.

``I don't think that Capt. Brandhuber had a thing to do with this at all,'' Konetzni said, adding that the civilian guests also were blameless.

Meanwhile, the Navy announced Monday it had identified a ``potentially feasible salvage option'' for the Ehime Maru.

The estimated $40 million operation would require a two-phase lift that would bring the 180-foot ship into shallow water. It would take about six months after an environmental assessment was completed. The assessment could take several months, Navy officials said.

Japanese leaders and relatives of the nine missing have been pressing the United States to raise the ship. A final decision on whether to proceed with the salvage will be made by the federal government.