Sub Inquiry Focuses on Civilians

Wednesday, February 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Navy officials Wednesday acknowledged the possibility that 15 civilians — including two at control positions — aboard the U.S. attack submarine that sank a Japanese fishing vessel could have distracted the crew. They said there is not yet any evidence of that.

The Navy often takes civilians aboard ships and submarines for ``orientation'' rides meant to demonstrate the Navy's missions and capabilities for civic and business leaders, politicians, journalists and others. This normally would not interfere with operations, but the Navy said it cannot yet rule out that possibility in this case.

The officials also said that in seeking to determine how the accident happened, the Navy is considering an inquiry along criminal lines that could result in charges against the captain of the submarine or members of its crew.

Nine Japanese from the fishing vessel are still missing and hopes for their rescue have faded since the collision Friday off Hawaii.

A decision on how to proceed with the investigation is being weighed by Rear Adm. Charles Griffiths Jr., who as commander of Submarine Group Nine based at Bangor, Wash., is in charge of all ballistic missile submarines assigned to the Pacific Fleet. He was dispatched to Hawaii shortly after the accident.

The captain of the submarine has been relieved of duty pending the outcome of the investigation.

Regardless of the format of Griffiths' investigation, his findings will be forwarded to the Navy chain of command for a decision on what, if any, charges to pursue against the sub's captain or crew members.

The Navy might choose a more formal approach to its inquiry because of the likelihood that civilian deaths resulted from the collision, officials said. Although the nine Japanese are still listed as missing, Navy officials believe it is likely they were either trapped inside the ship or otherwise drowned.

John Hammerschmidt
AP/Ronen Zilberman [16K]

The ship is lying at the bottom of the sea at a depth of 1,800 feet.

In addition to the Navy inquiry, the National Transportation Safety Board is doing its own investigation.

The Navy acknowledged Tuesday that two civilians were at key control stations of the USS Greeneville when it practiced an emergency surfacing maneuver and rammed the Ehime Maru, sinking it.

Lt. Cmdr. Conrad Chun, a U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman in Hawaii, wouldn't specify the stations or release the names of the civilians, who included businessmen. Other Navy officials said Wednesday none of the civilians are nationally recognized names.

One issue to be considered in the investigation is whether the presence of civilians in the control room or elsewhere on the submarine could have interfered with the crew's normal procedures, officials said.

The disclosure that two civilians were at control positions on the submarine drew sharp criticism from some Japanese.

``A civilian wouldn't know what to do,'' Ryoichi Miya, first mate of the Ehime Maru, said Tuesday. ``It's absolutely unforgivable if a civilian was operating it.''

A defense official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity that one civilian was at the helm, where the vertical movement and direction of the submarine are controlled. The source said there was no indication that person played a role in Friday's crash.

The Washington Post, citing a source it did not identify, said another civilian was at the ballast controls, where the surfacing maneuver would have begun.

The Greeneville was performing a drill in which it dove to about 400 feet and then made a rapid ascent, shooting out of the water. This is done to practice an emergency ascent, although there was no actual emergency at the time.

The submarine commander usually ensures nothing is overhead before blowing the sub's ballast tanks, but the Greeneville somehow failed to detect the presence of the fishing vessel.

NTSB member John Hammerschmidt said late Tuesday that the submarine's primary periscope was functioning properly. However, he said Navy officials had informed him there were no sonar recordings or video to show what crew members saw before the Greeneville surfaced. He said investigators might be able to retrieve sonar data from computer hard drives.

Hammerschmidt said investigators also hadn't determined whether civilians' actions had any role in the crash. It isn't unusual for civilians to be allowed on Navy vessels; last year, 213 civilians took part in at-sea tours on Hawaii-based submarines, he said.

Off Hawaii, the search continued for the nine people missing from the Japanese vessel, a 190-foot ship owned by Uwajima Fisheries High School in southwestern Japan. Twenty-six people were rescued at sea an hour after the vessel was rammed by the 360-foot submarine.

Miya, surrounded by 13 crew members, recounted the hysteria aboard the Ehime Maru after it was struck.

``I was in total panic,'' Miya said. ``At the time of the accident, I had no idea who was in front of me, in back of me or around me.''

Shuji Yanagihara, the second mate, said he rushed from the mess hall to his room to grab a life jacket, after the crash plunged the vessel into darkness. He said he made it to the control room, where the captain, crew and students assembled before boarding the life rafts.

The crew urged the United States to find the three crewmen, two teachers and four students still missing.

Japan also asked the United States to salvage the sunken boat. The Navy has sent an underwater device equipped with sonar and video to determine if that is possible.

In the students' hometown in Japan, an editorial in Wednesday's local newspaper blamed the crash on a ``reckless exercise by the U.S. military.''

``Our hopes are fading, and the people in our town are getting angry at the United States,'' said Fumihisa Ueda, a city assemblyman.


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