Sunday, February 11, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, February 11, 2001

Crew had to stay put, Navy says

By Mike Gordon
and David Waite
Advertiser Staff Writers

When the Ehime Maru slipped beneath the waves 10 minutes after colliding with the USS Greeneville Friday afternoon, the nuclear submarine, with more than 100 personnel aboard, did not send a single sailor overboard to rescue survivors.

That fact has enraged the citizens and media of Japan, who have portrayed the U.S. Navy as clueless at best and callous at worst.

The Navy won’t say much about what happened after the accident, citing the need to complete an investigation. But sending people overboard to rescue survivors would have been next to impossible, Navy officials said, adding that the Greeneville helped by requesting Coast Guard assistance.

The call for help came 10 minutes after the 1:50 p.m. incident. The Coast Guard was on the scene by 2:25 p.m., managing to save to all but nine of the 35-member crew.

At 6,000 tons, the nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine is sophisticated and stealthy, but not designed to stop quickly, nor able to send rescue divers overboard while it is moving, the Navy said.

"You can be sure the crew of the Greeneville was working feverishly to get information to the people who could best assist in the recovery of survivors," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dave Werner, a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s submarine force.

Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, yesterday said the Greeneville had just finished practicing a maneuver called a "main, emergency ballast blow" when it collided with the fishing vessel.

Fargo said the maneuver quickly brings a submarine to the surface in event of an emergency and that crews routinely perform it for training and demonstration purposes.

Submarine crews also train to conduct a slower ascent to the surface, but both procedures require the same kind of thorough preparation, Fargo said.

"Our normal procedures, which have been tested over years, is to do an acoustic and visual search of the surface," Fargo said. "That is what we expect happened."

Once the Greeneville’s commander felt it was safe to surface, the submarine would have gone a little deeper, then compressed air would be forced into its forward ballast tanks, sending it to the surface.

"We have operating procedures to ensure the safety of evolutions such as surfacing a submarine, and we want to know what happened," Fargo said.

Fargo said the submarine was involved immediately in the rescue and communicated information to the Coast Guard. But sea conditions, with swells of 6 to 8 feet, were a problem for the Greeneville, Fargo said.

"There was a large swell in the area that precluded the submarine from opening her hatches and taking on people safely," he said.

The Coast Guard said it automatically launched rescue crews shortly before the Navy called because the Ehime Maru’s automated rescue beacon had already begun sending an emergency signal about 2 p.m., Coast Guard spokesman Gary Openshaw said.

By the time the Navy called, two 21-foot, rigid-hull inflatable Coast Guard boats, powered by twin-outboard engines, were speeding to the accident scene.

Openshaw said it took the two boats approximately 20 to 25 minutes to reach the area where the Ehime Maru sank. A 41-foot Coast Guard boat arrived shortly after the inflatables, Openshaw said.

It appeared to Coast Guard rescuers that the USS Greeneville "was pretty close" to a group of Ehime Maru survivors seated in three life rafts that had been lashed together, and that the sub "did turn about and come back" in an apparent attempt to aid in the rescue, Openshaw said.

While blowing the ballast would bring a submarine quickly to the surface, it would take several minutes to steady the vessel, raise its periscope - its only eyes to the outside world - and raise its communications antenna.

Werner would not comment on what happened inside the Greeneville or if the crew knew it had hit the Ehime Maru. But he said the normal post-surfacing procedures would have used up much of the 10 minutes it took for the fishing vessel to sink.

"I would say within minutes, the ship recognized there was trouble on the surface and worked hard to notify the appropriate agencies," Werner said.

The key to the investigation will be why the crew of the Greeneville did not know what was on the surface, Werner said.

Surfacing submarines are legally responsible to make sure the area is clear, said Eugene Carroll, a retired rear admiral who is now vice president the Center for Defense Information, a Washington, D.C.-based military think tank.

"The submarine is supposed to clear the area with its sound devices and periscope," Carroll said. "If there is an accident, there is a presumption of error on the part of the submarine because there is no way a surface ship can avoid it if it doesn’t even know the sub is there."

Advertiser staffer Dan Nakaso contributed to this report.

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