Sunday, February 11, 2001
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Posted at 10 p.m. February 11, 2001

NTSB recommended better sonar use after previous submarine collision

Advertiser Staff

Federal investigators are examining the details of a fatal 1989 submarine accident that bears some resemblence to Friday’s collision between the USS Greeneville and a Japanese training vessel that left nine people missing, the National Transportation Safety Board said tonight.

In both cases, the nuclear-powered, fast-attack submarines were using only their less accurate “passive sonar” systems to check for surface traffic before their accidents.

The National Transportation Safety Board had urged the Navy in 1990 to require Navy subs to use their more sensitive “active sonar” systems before rising to periscope depth in U.S. coastal waters with a high volume.

The NTSB recommendation came after the USS Houston, a Los Angeles-class submarine, snagged a tow cable attached to the tug Barcona, pulling it under and killing one of its sailors. The tug sank in 2,400 feet of water 10 miles southwest of Long Beach.

The USS Greeneville on Friday was using only passive sonar just before it breached the ocean like a whale and collided with a Japanese training ship.

Passive sonar amplifies sound in the water. Active sonar emits pings that bounce off objects and measure their range. But active sonar makes it easier for the submarine to be detected.

The Greeneville was executing a “main emergency ballast blow” when it collided with the Ehime Maru. The Coast Guard rescued 26 of the 35 people from the ship. The nine missing include four teen-agers, two instructors and three crewmen.

Hammerschmidt brought a copy of the 1990 report involving the USS Houston with him to Hawaii, but stressed there may not be any comparisons worth making with the Greeneville.

“I want to point out that we are not drawing any comparisons to the incident in 1989 and the one that occured south of Honolulu,” he said.

But the accident with the USS Houston represents the only other collision between a Navy submarine and a civilian vessel in U.S. waters that Hammerschmidt could recall.

NTSB investigators also will review the results of drug tests given to members of the Greeneville crew, Hammerschmidt said.

“We were informed they were requested by the U.S. Coast Guard of the appropriate personnel aboard the Greeneville,” he said. “There were urine tests, for drugs, taken from navigation watch personnel.”

Recovery of the Ehime Maru

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori wants the United States to consider retrieving the Ehime Maru — which sunk in 1,800 feet of water — because the missing fishermen might be in the wreckage. A Coast Guard spokesman said the request is being processed but the necessary equipment would need to be shipped into the Islands.

NTSB investigators, who plan to inspect the Greeneville for the first time this afternoon, said it does not intend to ask the Navy to recover the Ehime Maru.
“It is not critical to the this investigation,” Hammerschmidt said. “We have a process that should allow us to understand this accident without looking at the wreckage. That’s just a preliminary thought at this point.”

The Navy plans to inspect the Greeneville’s log books, any videotapes of periscope viewings and electronic records of acoustical readings.

Coast Guard meets with families

The Coast Guard today met with families of the victims at Sand Island. The private meeting was supposed to last one hour but stretched to an hour and 45 minutes as family members peppered officials with questions about the cause of the accident, the rescue response time and the scope of rescue efforts.

Coast Guard officials said they have covered 5,000 square miles of ocean off Oahu in three days and told worried families they will continue searching.

“We intend to search as long as we believe there is a reasonable hope that we will find survivors and that we will rescue them from this tragic incident,” said Coast Guard Operations Chief Capt. Steven A. Williams.

Family members asked to be taken to the scene of the collision, and the Coast Guard and Navy are considering the request, Williams said.

After the briefing, some family members ran to a chartered bus. Others walked with set faces and eyes averted. One woman, bent with grief, was held by others as they passed a phalanx of media.

Greeneville's actions defended

Meanwhile the Navy defended the crew of the Greeneville, faced with increasing Japanese criticism that the Greeneville did not do enough after the collision, Navy spokesmen in Hawai‘i defended the Greeneville.

Trying to conduct a rescue operation from a sub could have put the 26 fishermen in greater jeopardy, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dave Werner, spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Submarine Force. .

“No one wanted to offer more relief than this crew,” Werner said. “The point is, what is in the best interests of the survivors?

“A submarine is designed to have a smooth hydrodynamic hull such that water easily flows over its rounded steel hull,” Werner said. “While that is very effective in helping the submarine maneuver quietly underwater, it doesn’t lend itself to people standing on its curved surface, especially in higher seas.”

Video footage taken of the Greeneville at the site of the collision shows that a rope ladder the crew deployed from the sub’s 20-foot tall sail was slick with sea spray and swinging back and forth, Werner said. Climbing the sail would have been dangerous, he said, since the video shows waves washing over the deck and striking the sail.

Opening a hatch on the sub to retrieve the 26 survivors “presents a genuine safety risk ... in such sea states,” Werner said. “You don’t want to open a 36-inch hole with nothing to stop it from coming in.”

A rescue swimmer deployed from the Greeneville was unnecessary because it appears that all of the survivors were already in life rafts, Werner said.

Coast Guard spokesman Chief Petty Officer Gary Openshaw said later that the sub in fact did follow one life raft with only one survivor aboard which was scudding across the waves because of its light weight, while the other rafts had lashed themselves together for safety, Openshaw said.

Search continuing tonight

The Coast Guard and the Navy, and the Japanese training vessel Nippon Maru, a tall ship operated by the Japanese government, were continuing the search tonight.

Advertiser staff writers Mike Gordon, Dan Nakaso and Walter Wright contributed to this report.

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