Wednesday, February 14, 2001
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Updated at 11:24 a.m.,February 14, 2001

Navy: Weighing criminal inquiry in sub collision; civilians could have distracted sub crew

Rescued crew's plea: Find the others
Incident likely ends commander's sterling career
Pentagon insists submarine could not rescue survivors
Navy withholding identity of civilians aboard sub
Surviving students return to Uwajima
Public often given look at sub crews in action
Lee Cataluna: Missing students brought joy during visit to local retailer
Tribute to the Missing
Video of yesterday's press conference with the crew of the Ehime Maru

By Robert Burns
AP Military Writer

WASHINGTON — The Navy admiral investigating the U.S. submarine collision is considering a line of inquiry that could lead to criminal charges because of the likelihood of deaths aboard the Japanese boat the sub hit, Navy officials said today.

Officials also said they cannot rule out the possibility that civilians aboard the USS Greeneville, including two at control positions, were a distraction to the crew and contributed to the sinking of the Japanese fishing vessel off the coast of Hawai'i.

The Navy officials said no evidence of that has turned up yet, but investigators will examine the possibility.

In seeking to determine how the accident happened, the Navy is considering an inquiry that could result in charges against the nuclear-powered submarine’s captain or members of his crew, according to Navy officials, who discussed the matter on condition they not be identified.

A decision on how to direct the investigation is being weighed by Rear Adm. Charles Griffiths Jr., who as commander of Submarine Group Nine based at Bangor, Wash., is in charge of ballistic missile submarines assigned to the Pacific Fleet. He was dispatched to Hawai'i shortly after the accident.

The captain of the submarine, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, of Austin, Texas, has been relieved of duty pending the outcome of the investigation. The Greeneville is an attack submarine and does not carry nuclear missiles.

The Navy might choose a more-formal-than-usual approach to its inquiry because of the likelihood that civilian deaths resulted from the collision, officials said. Nine Japanese are still listed as missing, but Navy officials believe it is likely they were either trapped inside the ship or otherwise drowned.

The ship is lying on the seabed at a depth of 1,800 feet.

Regardless of the format of Griffiths’ investigation, his findings will be forwarded to the Navy chain of command for a decision on what, if any, charges to pursue against the sub’s captain or crew members.

In addition to the Navy inquiry, the National Transportation Safety Board is doing its own investigation because civilian maritime traffic was involved.

One issue to be considered is whether the presence of civilians in the control room or elsewhere on the submarine could have interfered with the crew’s normal procedures, officials said.

The Navy often takes civilians — civic and business leaders, politicians, journalists and others — aboard ships and submarines for orientation rides meant to demonstrate the Navy’s capabilities. This normally would not interfere with operations, although conditions aboard a submarine are more crowded than aboard a surface ship.

It was not until yesterday, four days after the accident, that the Navy disclosed that two civilians were seated at control positions on the sub at the time it soared to the surface, in a drill meant to simulate an emergency ascent, and rammed into the fishing boat.

Today, the Navy maintained its refusal to disclose the identities of the civilians, said to number 15 or 16, citing their right to privacy. It has said they are civic and business officials and asked the Navy not to reveal their names.

The disclosure that civilians were at two control positions on the submarine drew sharp criticism from some Japanese.

A defense official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity that a civilian was at the helm, where the vertical movement and direction of the submarine are controlled. The source said there was no indication that person played a role in Friday’s crash.

The Washington Post, citing a source it did not identify, said another civilian was at the ballast controls, where the surfacing maneuver would have begun.

The Greeneville was performing a drill in which it dived to about 400 feet and then made a rapid ascent, shooting out of the water. This is done to practice an emergency ascent, although there was no actual emergency at the time.

It is the responsibility of the submarine commander to ensure nothing is overhead before blowing the sub’s ballast tanks. The Greeneville somehow failed to detect the presence of the fishing vessel.

NTSB member John Hammerschmidt said late yesterday the submarine’s primary periscope was functioning properly. However, he said Navy officials had informed him there were no sonar recordings or video to show what crew members saw before the Greeneville surfaced. He said investigators might be able to retrieve sonar data from computer hard drives.

Hammerschmidt said investigators also hadn’t determined whether civilians’ actions had any role in the crash.

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