Skipper of USS Greeneville Aware of Other Ship

Friday, February 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON – The skipper of the USS Greeneville has told Navy investigators that he was aware from sonar soundings that a ship was in the vicinity before the submarine made a rapid ascent to the surface and crashed into a Japanese fishing vessel on Feb. 9, a source familiar with the investigation said Thursday.

But the captain has maintained that when he looked for the ship through a periscope, he saw nothing, and was not warned of any danger by a sailor whose job it was to plot the positions of nearby vessels.

The Navy has postponed a formal court of inquiry into the collision until March 5 at the request of a lawyer for the skipper, Cmdr. Scott Waddle of Austin. The hearing before three admirals, which could lead to a court-martial and charges of criminal negligence, had been scheduled to begin Monday.

Cmdr. Waddle has not publicly discussed the accident, which cost the lives of nine Japanese vocational high school students, instructors and sailors who were aboard the 190-foot ship Ehime Maru. But a person close to the investigation outlined Thursday the statements the captain has made to investigators, foreshadowing the defense he is likely to mount before the Navy court.

According to this account, the skipper checked the compass bearing of the nearby ship, as indicated by sonar readings. Then he increased the periscope's magnification and ordered that the submarine ascend two feet closer to the surface so he could peer over the wavetops. But he still did not see any vessel nearby.

At about the same time, a sailor in the submarine's control room calculated that the two ships were only 2,000 yards apart. But the enlisted man decided that he must be mistaken, and therefore did not call out a warning, because the Greeneville's skipper had just made a careful periscope check and had pronounced the area clear of surface ships.

The sailor, known as a fire-control technician, "arbitrarily moved" the plotted position of the Japanese ship to 9,000 yards away from the Greeneville, according to the source familiar with the Navy investigation.

The sailor has told investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board that he was distracted by the 16 civilian guests who were crowded into the submarine's control room. But the captain maintains that neither he nor his crew were impeded by the civilians in the execution of their duties.

Shortly after the periscope checks, the captain gave the order for the submarine to ascend rapidly to the surface in a drill known as an "emergency main ballast blow." The vessel smashed into the bottom of the Ehime Maru, which sank within minutes. Twenty-six Japanese passengers and crew members were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard, but nine are still missing and presumed dead.

The captain was relieved of command the day after the collision, pending the outcome of the Navy investigation. From his statements to investigators, it seemed likely that his attorneys would argue that he is not guilty of negligence because he acted reasonably, given the information that was made available to him by his crew.

In another development Thursday, the Defense Department announced that it would soon order all the armed services to impose a moratorium on allowing civilians at the controls of military vehicles and equipment.

A Pentagon spokesman said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld intended to keep the moratorium in place until all of the services review their policies to ensure that civilian participation in military exercises is done safely.