The attorney representing the commander of the USS Greeneville today said a series of errors, including possibly those committed by his client, may have caused the accident that killed nine men and boys aboard the Ehime Maru.
Tomorrow a military hearing will examine the actions of the Greenevilles top officers: Cmdr. Scott Waddle, his second-in-command, Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Pfeifer, and the officer of the deck, Lt. j.g. Michael Coen.
Waddles attorney, Charles Gittins, told ABCs This Week today that as the Greenevilles skipper, the commander is personally responsible for the accident.
I am sure that the evidence is going to show that there was a chain of mistakes and, quite possibly, Cmdr. Waddle did not see this vessel and that was one of the chain of mistakes that caused the accident, Gittins said. That doesnt mean that those people who made those honest mistakes should ultimately be prosecuted criminally.
Three Navy admirals will preside over the court and recommend whether the officers should face disciplinary action ranging from a reprimand to court-martial. Their findings will be forwarded to Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, for final action. The admirals also could suggest changes to Navy policies on civilian participation in military operations.
A Japanese maritime official was named an adviser to the court but is not allowed to vote on any recommendations. The hearing was expected to last at least a week.
The court of inquiry, the Navys highest form of administrative investigation, is how we get lessons learned, said Eugene Fidell, head of the National Institute of Military Justice in Washington, D.C.
Its to have an exhaustive look at the matter, not only from the standpoint of potentially assigning responsibility but finding out what happened and making recommendations of a systemic nature so that it doesnt happen again, Fidell said.
All 16 civilians and an estimated 16 Navy personnel were crammed into the Greenevilles tight control room as the crew prepared to surface the submarine. One crewman, whose job is to track surface vessels, told federal investigators that he stopped manually plotting the position of the Ehime Maru less than an hour before the collision because the control room was too crowded.
Three civilians were at various controls during the maneuver itself, although the Navy maintains they were closely monitored and that their actions did not contribute to the accident.
The court of inquirys presiding officers could subpoena the civilians to testify, although Navy officials said none had been issued prior to Mondays session. Affidavits could be requested instead.
Gittins said that when Waddle checked the periscope for other ships before surfacing, the Ehime Maru probably was traveling bow-on to the submarine. That may mean the white fishing vessel was obscured by haze and whitecaps. Waddle had raised the sub to a higher periscope depth and changed the magnification before looking, his lawyer said.
He did the procedures that are required to do a proper periscope search. Unfortunately, he didnt see the target, Gittins said.
Among those expected to testify during the court of inquiry: Capt. Robert Brandhuber, the chief of staff of the U.S. Pacific Fleets submarine force who accompanied the civilians aboard the Greeneville; the fire control technician who said he was distracted by the visitors; Rear Adm. Charles Griffiths, who led the Navys investigation into the accident; and Hisao Onishi, captain of the Ehime Maru.
The three officers also are likely to be called to testify, although they could invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Attorneys for Waddle and Coen have requested the officers be granted testimonial immunity, which would prevent the military from using anything they say to seek future charges. They still could face prosecution, however, based upon the testimony of others.
Lawyers for Pfeifer and Coen did not return calls today for comment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.