Sub commander emotional as investigator recounts crash aftermath

Friday, March 9th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (AP) _ As frightened teen-agers and men scrambled into life rafts outside the USS Greeneville, Cmdr. Scott Waddle grabbed his periscope and saw their fishing boat sinking fast.

He ran to the bridge while divers suited up and his crew cleared the mess hall to take in anyone wounded.

``Are you all right?'' Navy officers shouted. But they couldn't understand the responses because they were in Japanese.

While confusion and helplessness filled the minutes after the fast-rising submarine ripped through the boat, Waddle and his crew acted ``remarkably professional,'' the Navy's chief investigator into the crash, Rear Adm. Charles Griffiths Jr., testified Thursday before a Navy court of inquiry.

When asked by Waddle's attorney whether the commander was criminally negligent in the operation of his submarine, Griffiths replied: ``In my opinion he was not criminally negligent.''

Waddle, who along with two other officers could face disciplinary action, cried as Griffiths recounted the moments after the Greeneville collided with the Ehime Maru on Feb. 9. Nine people, four of them students, were killed.

After the court session, Waddle offered an apology to the relatives of some of the victims, telling them tearfully, ``I'm accountable for the incident.''

``I can't ask for forgiveness,'' Waddle told the families. ``This is a burden I will carry to the grave.''

Ryosuke Terata, whose 17-year-old son died, said afterward, ``Now I feel kind of sorry for Waddle, too.''

The inquiry will help determine the fate of Waddle; Lt. j.g. Michael Coen, the Greeneville's officer of the deck; and Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Pfeifer, the second in command. They could face no disciplinary action or anything from a reprimand to court-martial and imprisonment.

After four days detailing mistakes aboard the submarine, Griffiths wrapped up his testimony Thursday by praising the officers for their rescue efforts. While sea swells made it unsafe for the crew to transfer survivors into the sub, the vessel moved closer to one raft that had a lone victim in case he needed assistance.

``They never did see a person who was not in a raft,'' Griffiths said. ``If they had seen that, their swimmers would have immediately gone in.''

The officers' lawyers, meanwhile, sought to shift blame to a crewman who they say neglected to report that another boat was in close range minutes before the crash.

About six minutes before the collision, the fire control technician obtained data showing a boat 4,000 yards from the Greeneville. This happened as Coen and Waddle were conducting periscope scans for surface vessels. Both officers verbally reported seeing no close ships.

The technician should have heard that call and questioned it, Griffiths testified.

''(He) should have spoken up and said, `That may be, but I think we have a close guy here,''' Griffiths said.

When a lawyer for Coen asked whether that could have prevented the collision, Griffiths replied: ``Most emphatically yes.'' Later, Griffiths added: ``That would have changed history.''

Griffiths has said the technician didn't speak up because 16 civilian visitors aboard the sub blocked his access to Waddle. Testimony also showed he initially received inaccurate data about the location of the Ehime Maru.

The Navy had declined to name the fire control technician, but lawyers identified him a veteran crewman, Petty Officer 1st Class Patrick Seacrest. Seacrest, 34, did not return messages from The Associated Press on Thursday.

Another officer who reconstructed the movements of the two boats was scheduled to testify on Friday.