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

Coast Guard promises to keep searching until hope runs out

By Walter Wright
Adverttiser Staff Writer

After covering 5,000 square miles of ocean off O'ahu in three days, the Coast Guard told worried families today it will continue to search for nine persons missing off the Ehime Maru until they are found or there is no hope that any of them are alive.

“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.

“We still think we may find survivors.”

Williams exonerated the USS Submarine Greeneville in the rescue effort, saying it could not have safely assisted any of the survivors, and did all it could by calling for help and standing by on the scene.

And Williams said the Coast Guard’s initial response, first with a helicopter diverted from a Kahoolawe mission, and then with a C-130 aircraft and two boats, was swift and effective.

But Williams’ briefings of the families, and then of the media, left unanswered questions about the cause of the collision and about the Ehime Maru captain’s estimate that it took close to an hour from the time his ship was hit until the first rescue craft arrived.

About 35 family members were supposed to have an hour-long briefing with the Coast Guard, but it stretched out to an hour and 45 minutes as they peppered officials with questions about the cause of the accident, the rescue response time, and the scope of rescue efforts.

Williams said family members “were quite concerned about the particulars of the accident,” but that he had referred them to the NTSB investigation.

“The families were very concerned as you would expect.” Williams said. “We are in the position of searching for their sons, fathers, brothers. They wanted a lot of information that we quiote simply do not hve to give them right now.” He said the families were “very appreciative” of the search efforts.

A representative from the commander of the Pacific Fleet came to the briefing and expressed condolences, Williams said.

Then some family members from Ehime Prefecture ran, others walked with set faces and eyes averted, and one woman bent with grief was held by others as they passed a phalanx of cameras reporters outside the Coast Guard Club 14 auditorium on Sand Island. They climbed into chartered Travel Plaza Transportation Bus No. 67 to return to their hotel rooms, and to wait.

Families request trip to scene

Williams said family members had asked to be taken to the scene of the collision, and that the Coast Guard and the Navy were considering that request.

Williams declined to speculate on how long anyone could survive in even the relatively warm 77-degree Hawaiian waters.

But Coast Guard officials said some of the survivors were already suffering early stages of hypothermia after being in the water for less than an hour.

Greeneville's actions defended

Williams said the USS Submarine Greeneville would have created more harm than help if it had attempted to bring any survivors aboard over the rounded steel hull of the sub in the rough seas.

“Some other actions like launching boats and pulling people out would have only increased the risk to the people in the rafts,” he said.

He said the Greeneville had only “self rescue” capability, and was not designed or equipped to attempt to rescue others at sea. The sub does have the ability to deploy divers through ports in the hull, but divers would not have been able to do much if anything once in the water, Coast Guard spokesman Chief Petty Officer Gary Openshaw said later.

Seaman John Leadford, 24, of Medford, Ore., said he was aboard the second small boat to arrive on the scene, and saw the submarine standing about 300 to 400 yards off, with two crew members above the deck monitoring the survivors in the liferafts.

He said rescuers questioned the survivors by sign language and separated the injured out for quick return to shore. The worst injury appeared to be a broken collar bone, Leadford said.

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 continues 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.

The Coast Guard had deployed a C-130 airplane, an H-65 helicopter, the 87-foot patrol boat Coast Guard Cutter Kittwake, and the 110-foot patrol boat Coast Guard Cutter Kiska.

Navy assets deployed included the USS Lake Erie, the USS Salvor, the Torpedo Recovery Vessel Hawthorne 8 and a P-3 aircraft.

Williams said the search area had expanded rapidly, to an area about the size of the State of Connecticut, as time and drift affected the possible location of any survivors.

Vessels on the scene had recovered fenders, life rafts ad life raft cases, but there was no sign of the others missing from the Ehime Maru.

Although today’s weather conditions, with overcast skies and seas at four feet, were favorable for search conditions, the forecast with small craft warnings posted was not “optimum” for either the search or possible survivors, but was not necessarily fatal to either, Williams said.

The time line of the maritime disaster remained in question tonight.

The Ehime Maru’s captain, Hisao Onishi, had been quoted as saying he believed the collision occured at 1:30 p.m., that the ship had sunk by 1:40 p.m., and that he and the other survivors clambered into the life rafts by 1:45 p.m.

Asked if the captain’s estimate meant it took almost an hour from the collision for any rescue units to arrive on scene, Coast Guard Capt. Williams said he could only time his crews’ reaction time from the moment, at 1:55, when the Coast Guard received word from the Navy that the Greeneville had collided with the training ship.

While Japanese media reported the Japanese government received an emergency beacon signal from the Ehime Maru at 1:47 p.m., the Coast Guard’s Joint Rescue Coordination Center did not receive the signal until 2 p.m.

The difference, a Coast Guard spokesman said, could have been caused by the fact that such a signal is not necessarily detected the moment it is sent, but only when a tracking satellite passes overhead, in a 45-minute cycle for the U.S. satellite, and perhaps on another cycle for Japan.

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