Coast Guard suspends search for missing Japanese mariners

Saturday, March 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HONOLULU (AP) _ The U.S. Coast Guard has suspended its search for nine victims lost at sea last month after their Japanese fishing vessel was rammed and sunk by a surfacing Navy submarine.

The four students, two teachers and three crewmen of the Ehime Maru have been missing since Feb. 9 and presumed dead. Coast Guard Lt. Christina De Leon said Friday night that no ships would be sent out to continue searching for them, pending further developments.

The missing students' school, Uwajima Fisheries High School, and local government officials said they had no comment on the Coast Guard's decision.

The Japanese trawler sank minutes after it was hit by the USS Greeneville during a rapid-ascent drill nine miles off Honolulu. Twenty-six people from the training boat were rescued.

Underwater probes found the vessel Feb. 16 on the ocean floor in 2,000 feet of water. The Coast Guard said the search for the missing covered more than 38,541 square miles, an area larger than the size of Indiana.

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

The submerged Greeneville raced past the slow-moving Ehime Maru before a fateful course reversal that ended in their deadly collision, according to the information.

It was the first disclosure of the submarine's movements in the critical 10 minutes leading up to the collision.

The Navy is scheduled to open hearings into the accident Monday at Pearl Harbor, focusing on the actions of the Greeneville's officers.

Navy lawyers on Friday were reviewing a request from attorneys for submarine Cmdr. Scott Waddle seeking ``testimonial immunity'' for Waddle during the hearings.

Testimonial immunity would prevent military lawyers from prosecuting Waddle based upon anything he says during the investigative hearing, according to military legal expert Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice in Washington, D.C. However, Waddle still could face prosecution based upon the testimony of others.

Lawyers for Adm. Thomas Fargo, who convened the hearings, were reviewing the request. Waddle's attorneys did not return messages from The Associated Press.

The Navy had no comment on the information released by the NTSB, said Jon Yoshishige, a spokesman for the Pacific Fleet. He said the Navy is cooperating fully with the NTSB's investigation.

The information released by the NTSB is based on a preliminary tape provided by the Navy of the Greeneville's sonar and navigation data.

It showed the 190-foot fisheries training vessel was traveling in a south-southeast direction at 11 knots, nearly parallel to the southbound course of the submerged 360-foot Greeneville.

The much-faster submarine passed the Ehime Maru, but reversed course to the north to prepare for an emergency surfacing drill. The drill was a demonstration for 16 civilian guests aboard, the Navy said.

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

After 1 1/2 minutes at periscope depth, the Greeneville descended, going the same direction as the Ehime Maru. It reached 405 feet in two minutes and turned northward.

The Greeneville then shot to the surface in 50 seconds, coming up under the Ehime Maru, the NTSB data show. The submarine ripped the bottom out of the Ehime Maru.

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.

In 1994, the La Jolla collided with a Navy torpedo retriever while conducting exercises for a tactical readiness exam at periscope depth. Four years later, the ship had a nighttime collision with a fishing trawler while traveling at surface level.

The other incidents included a 1992 collision between a submarine and a towed array and accidents in 1995 and 1996 in which subs hit other vessels while traveling in heavy fog.

The location and other details about the accidents, including whether disciplinary action ensued, were not immediately available.