Friday, February 9, 2001
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Posted on Saturday, February 10, 2001

In Japan, hope is fading as search continues

Associated Press

UWAJIMA, Japan — The families of four students missing after a U.S. submarine surfaced under their fishing boat huddled in the school principal’s office in a small Japanese town on Saturday and nurtured fading hopes that their loved ones might survive.

U.S. rescue workers in the waters off Hawaii expressed determination to continue searching for the nine missing, including the four 17-year-olds and two teachers from Uwajima and three crew members.

But here, officials said despair was creeping up on the families.

“For those who weren’t plucked out of the water, you have to wonder,” Mayor Hiroshi Ishibashi said. “The folks in that room are losing their spirits.”

By early evening in Japan, 10 hours had elapsed since the nuclear-powered submarine cracked open the belly of the Ehime Maru, spilling diesel fuel into the Pacific and scattering the 35 people aboard the training vessel. Twenty-six people have been rescued so far.

School officials expressed shock and disbelief.

“I had sent them off hoping that this would be a valuable learning experience, so I can’t believe that this has happened,” said Kazumitsu Joko, vice principal of Uwajima Fisheries High School, which has about 200 students.

Rescue workers in Hawaii were shown on Japanese TV saying some of the survivors vomited up the diesel fuel they swallowed trying to swim to safety. Others were treated for hypothermia.

Four of the 12 injured survivors were receiving treatment at a hospital, Ehime official Soji Fujita said.

The 499-ton Ehime Maru left Japan on Jan. 10 to hunt for tuna, swordfish and shark. The USS Greeneville surfaced under it on Friday off Waikiki, sinking it within minutes.

Ehime Prefecture, where Uwajima is located, set up a crisis center for families and friends. The town is about 420 miles southwest of Tokyo.

“It’s a bit chaotic right now,” municipal official Masanori Mori said. “There’s a great deal of shock. When I think of the families, it must be so difficult just to wait with no information.”

Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori said U.S. officials had apologized.

“The United States extended its apologies and promised utmost efforts to find the missing,” Mori said. “I pray the missing are found as soon as possible.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said the apology came from Franklin Kramer, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and that Washington admitted responsibility for the accident, Kyodo News agency reported.

Kyoko Sasaki, 44, who works at a convenience store near the high school, said residents of the town of about 66,000 people were finding it difficult to stay calm.

“Students from the school couldn’t stop talking about the accident,” she said. “We’re all so worried.”

When Sasaki heard about the accident, she immediately called a friend whose son attends the high school, and was relieved to find that he was not on the training mission.

The Foreign Ministry said it was in contact with its consulate in Honolulu and seeking details of the accident, including the identity of those missing.

Patrick Linehan, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, said it was in close contact with the Foreign Ministry. He said the United States was making “every effort” to find the missing.

Relations between Japanese and the U.S. military have been strained lately in the wake of recent sex crimes by American servicemen in Okinawa.

Tensions intensified this past week after the top Marine in Okinawa, Lt. Gen. Earl Hailston, was reported to have sent his staff an e-mail calling Okinawa legislators “nuts and a bunch of wimps.” Hailston later apologized.

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