Nine remain missing after U.S. sub hits Japanese fishing boat

Saturday, February 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HONOLULU (AP) _ Rescue crews held out hope that they would find nine people _ including high school students on a training voyage _ who were on a Japanese fishing vessel that sank after a Navy nuclear-powered attack submarine collided with it.

The Navy and Coast Guard continued their search Saturday morning in choppy seas for people clinging to the wreckage.

``We found some debris earlier today, but no sign of survivors yet,'' said Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Greg Fondran.

The Ehime Maru left Japan with 20 crew members on Jan. 10 to hunt for tuna, swordfish and shark. The boat was also carrying two teachers and 13 students from the Uwajima Fisheries High School in the southwestern Japanese state of Ehime. The students were learning how to fish.

Still missing early Saturday were four students, two teachers and three crew members.

The USS Greeneville came up under the 180-foot vessel, ripping the engine room open and causing two resounding booms. Seconds later, water flooded the vessel, sinking it within minutes, said a Coast Guard translator describing Friday's collision nine miles south of Waikiki in waters about 18,000 feet deep.

``Most of the people were below deck in the rooms or galley,'' said Petty Officer Michael Carr, who interviewed the survivors. ``After the lights went out, everyone started yelling that the water is coming into the ship. That's when most of the people we saw started fleeing.''

The Greeneville, which remained at the scene of the collision, was not damaged, Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Cate Mueller said in Washington. It was not immediately known how many crew members were aboard the Greeneville, a Pearl Harbor-based sub that is equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Twenty-six survivors were found stranded amid the debris. They huddled in three life rafts before being rescued. Petty Officer Thomas Kron, who was on the Coast Guard patrol boat, said the survivors were soaked with diesel fuel that spilled when the boat sank.

``They seemed like they were in shock. They were fatigued by the time we got there. Some of them were seasick and some of them were glad to see us,'' he said.

The survivors were taken to the Coast Guard station at Honolulu Harbor's Sand Island. Some walked off on their own; others were carried on stretchers and covered in blankets. Fourteen were cared for at the base, including showers to wash off the fuel, while the rest were taken to local hospitals.

Fondran said a wounded shoulder appeared to be the worst injury.

Dressed in blue jump suits, the survivors lined up to use the single phone available to them at the base, to let their families in Japan know that they were safe.

Japanese officials said they were scrambling to coordinate a response to the accident. School and government officials were expected to arrive in Honolulu on Saturday. Family members were to arrive on Sunday.

``It's a bit chaotic right now,'' said Uwajima municipal official Masanori Mori. ``There's a great deal of shock.''

Mori said the Ehime Prefectural government had set up a crisis center to assist families and cull information on the accident.

Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori said the United States had apologized.

``The United States extended its apologies and promised utmost efforts to find the missing,'' Mori said.

``It's important to say the Navy regrets this unfortunate incident,'' said Cmdr. Bruce Cole, a spokesman for the Pacific Fleet. ``We're very concerned about the families and friends of those for whom we search.''

He said it is not known why the submarine surfaced under the vessel. Cole promised a full investigation.

The Greeneville was commissioned in February 1996. It is 360 feet long, has a diameter of 33 feet and displaces 6,900 tons submerged.

The crash is the second major accident involving a Navy vessel near Hawaii in seven months. The USS Denver, a 570-foot amphibious transport dock ship, was preparing to receive fuel from the USNS Yukon, a Military Sealift Command oiler, when the two vessels collided.

No one was injured, but the 677-foot Yukon sustained heavy damage to its right side and the Denver had a 25-foot-deep gash in its bow.