Wednesday, February 14, 2001
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Posted at 10:45 p.m., February 14, 2001

NTSB: Supervised civilians had hands on sub's controls

By David Waite
and Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writers

A civilian passenger’s hands were on the controls that sent the USS Greeneville into its “emergency ballast blow” and shooting out of the water into a Japanese fishing vessel that sank in minutes, the National Transportation Safety Board said tonight.

A second civilian passenger controlled the steering and direction of the submarine. In both instances, a crew member was alongside or had his hands intertwined with those of the civilians operating the controls of the 6,900-ton sub, NTSB John Hammerschmidt said.

During an NTSB briefing tonight, the most detailed yet about where civilians were positioned during the accident that sent 35 men and boys from the fishing vessel Ehime Maru into the water, officials also said that the submarine’s sonar and periscope functions were in working order, though a video recording device in the control room was not turned on.

Meanwhile, as the Coast Guard prepared to end its search for nine missing people off the Ehime Maru, the Navy announced that the civilians aboard the sub at the time were there at the request of retired Adm. Richard Macke.

Macke, a Honolulu resident who once commanded all U.S. forces from the east coast of Africa to the West Coast of the United States, arranged the tour for the 16 civilians as a volunteer for the USS Missouri Memorial Association, said Lt. Cmdr. Conrad Chun, spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Although hundreds of civilian guests each year take tours on Navy submarines, a furor has arisen over this particular trip because two civilians were at the controls.

The Navy has maintained they were under strict supervision.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in an interview tonight on PBS’ “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” said there was no indication, “none whatsoever” that the civilians interferred with the submarine crew and caused the accident.

Similar statements flowed from the Pentagon throughout the day. The emphasis: It is too early to conclude anything about the accident.

“People who are speculating as to potential causes are speculating without knowledge as to what was happening the day the accident occured,” said Cmdr. Greg Smith, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon.

“That is why we do investigations,” he said. “We want to know what happened and I assure you this investigation will find out what happened.”

Smith said it was unlikely that a guest inside the cramped submarine control room would have behaved in a way that distracted submariners. The crew of a submarine underway is intense and focused, he said, and most guests quickly realize the need to stay out of the way.

“Submariners behave in a very measured and purposeful way which in and of itself tends to be a quieter manner,” Smith said. “It is something akin to an operating room.”

Still, the questions as to the identify of the civilians aboard and what they may know about the accident prompted U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, (D-Hawai‘i), to criticize Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, who was in Washington, D.C. today. Abercrombie told the admiral that the information should be made public, said Mike Slackman, a spokesman for the congressman.

“Neil told him that he did not feel that the Navy’s rationale of privacy held water because of the magnitude of the event,” Slackman said.

The Navy would not say today what, if any connection the guests have with the USS Missouri Memorial Association, where Macke is a volunteer. Macke has planned to be on board himself but canceled because of work obligations.

The association, which has worked since 1998 to turn the battleship into a floating museum, was unable today to say if the submarine guests had contributed to the restoration effort.

“We receive numerous donations each week and are unable to make the names of these donors public without first receiving their permission,” Don Hess, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the association said in a prepared statement.

“The association has had no involvement in requesting or making arrangements for any civilians to have access to the USS Greeneville.”

Neither Macke, who was forced into early retirement five years ago for making inappropriate comments about a rape of a young girl in Okinawa, nor Hess returned phone calls.

The Navy receives referrals from a wide range of groups, Chun said.

“It is not uncommon to receive referrals from retired military members,” he said. “But no organization or individual arranges embarks. Only the Navy arranges embarks.”

Smith said the collision with the Ehime Maru accident has not prompted Navy officials to suspend or end the day trips for civilians. One was conducted this week on the East Coast.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard said it was preparing to wind up its search for the nine men and boys from the Ehime Maru still missing and presumed dead afer covering a 72,000-square-kilometer area since Friday.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Joseph McClelland Jr. met with the families of the missing Ehime Maru students, teachers and crewmen, as well as with Yoshitaka Sakurada, parliamentary officer of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Japanese consulate general before making the announcement.
“They were very understanding,” he said. “There was no disagreement to that.”

But in Japan, city officials in Uwajima City where the fishing school is located, were outraged.

“If they are really calling off the search, that is very offensive,” said Mayor Hirohisa Ishibashi. “I cannot understand or accept such a decision.”

Said Akira Kawai, a city councilman: “The Americans seem to be disregarding the value of human life. As long as there is even a remote possibility of there being survivors, the search should be continued.”

Fifteen of the 17 surviving crew members of the Ehime Maru left Honolulu today for Tokyo. One other crew member left on a separate flight for Osaka and the captain, Hisao Onishi, will remain in Hawai‘i for now as the investigation continues.

Although the Coast Guard is likely to call off the official search, it will remain in a five-mile area around the collision as the Navy begins its search and recovery for the wreckage of the Ehime Maru.

Navy deep-sea teams are waiting for better weather before sending the Super Scorpio, a submersible with sonar, two black and white cameras and two manipulators, down to the wreckage of the Japanese vessel. Families of the victims, as well as the prime minister of Japan, are uring that the vessel be recovered, an expensive and time-consuming process.

Two dozen members of the Navy’s Deep Submergence Unit attempted to use the Scorpio today, but high seas washing across the deck of the C-Commando, a ship under contract to the Navy, forced them to return to harbor, said Capt. Charles Leidig, commander of the San Diego-based unit.

“We should be able to locate the vessel, but this could take an extended period of time,” Leidig said.

The Navy has not pinpointed the exact resting spot of the Ehime Maru, he said. The USS Greeneville’s sonar had some general locating data, which will be used in the search.

“We’re watching the weather very closely,” Leidig said. “My crew is standing by ready to go out to sea.”

The Scorpio will locate and video the wreckage to determine if any of the missing are trapped inside the vessel, he said. The Nnavy does not yet know if the Ehime Maru is in one piece or if it broke apart after the collision.

Leidig and Cole said they were not ready to discuss possible salvage attempts.
The C-Commando and the USS Salvor will be used during the underwater search, Leidig said. The Deep Drone, a submersible that reached a depth of 7,200 feet, will also come to Hawai‘i from an East Coast military facility. It carries sonar, manipulators, a 35-mm still camera and two video cameras.

Advertiser Staff Writers Jennifer Hiller, Sally Apgar and Curtis Lum and Yomiuri Shimbun contributed to this report.

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