U.S. to launch formal inquiry into fatal submarine accident

Kyodo

U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Thomas Fargo said Saturday that the U.S. Navy will begin a high-level inquiry as early as Thursday on the Feb. 9 collision in which a U.S. submarine hit and sank a Japanese fisheries training ship.

Fargo also said that the navy has decided to proceed with an open court of inquiry and that senior officials of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces will attend as observers.

The court will focus on three officers from the USS Greeneville, including its skipper, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, who was relieved of duty after the accident, Fargo told a news conference at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu.

The procedure could pave the way for a court-martial of the three officers.

“A Court of Inquiry is the navy’s highest form of administrative investigation and a formal hearing,” Fargo said, following his review of the navy’s preliminary inquiry into the collision.

“The Court is directed to inquire into all facets of the collision. They will recommend administrative or disciplinary action if appropriate, as well as make any other recommendations as to the circumstances surrounding the accident,” he said.

Fargo also confirmed that the emergency surfacing drill, in which the nuclear-powered submarine hit and sank the Ehime Maru, was performed as a demonstration for 16 civilians invited aboard the submarine as guests, Fargo said. Two civilians were at key controls during the drill.

Meanwhile, the navy released the names and home addresses of the 16 civilians aboard the Greeneville.

Two of the civilians have already been interviewed on the record by NBC — John Hall, who pulled the levers that sent the submarine to the surface under the crew’s supervision, and Todd Thoman. The others included people from Hawaii and Kansas. The navy said it decided to release the names because the nonpublic inquiry has been completed and because a decision has been made to proceed with an open court of inquiry. The navy said it kept the names secret earlier because it was conducting a preliminary inquiry into the collision.

The navy, meanwhile, continued to search the wreckage of the Ehime Maru on Saturday.

The Scorpio-2, the navy’s remote-control submersible, detected the wreckage of the ship Friday night. But it has not yet discovered any of the nine Japanese missing since the collision.

Video footage of the ship has been shown to relatives of the missing people.

The navy took Deep Drone, another remotely operated submersible, to the collision site to determine what form the recovery operation will take, it said.

The navy will decide how to proceed with the recovery after using the footage to examine the seabed, the drift of the tide and the condition of the ship.

Japanese government leaders and families of the missing people are strongly urging U.S. authorities to salvage the ship, believing that some of the bodies may be trapped inside the vessel.

According to navy officials, the Scorpio-2 detected the 499-ton Ehime Maru on Friday night about 900 meters from the site of the collision.

The ship is resting on the seabed about 600 meters below the surface, at 21 degrees 4.95 minutes north latitude and 157 degrees 49.58 minutes west longitude, they said.

The video shows the ship in its original shape, with “Ehime Maru” painted on its stern in Japanese. The interior of the ship cannot be seen.

There are no visible scars on its deck, but a dent visible on the right side of the bow section have been left by the Greeneville.

A team of Japanese lawmakers that has flown to Honolulu to deal with the accident quoted officials of the Japanese Consulate as saying that an operation to raise Ehime Maru from the seabed would take at least six months and cost 6 billion yen to 7 billion yen.

The lawmakers, from the Democratic Party of Japan, said they were told by the Consulate that procuring specially ordered wires to pull the ship up from the depths would take three to six months alone.

Even examining the technical feasibility of a salvage operation, based on findings from the Scorpio-2, may take about three weeks. Another month more may be required to bring special salvage vessels to Hawaii, the lawmakers said.

The Greeneville was practicing an emergency surfacing maneuver when it hit the Ehime Maru, which was on a training voyage to help Japanese students learn commercial fishing techniques.

The U.S. Coast Guard rescued 26 of the passengers, but nine Japanese — four teenage students, two teachers from the high school, and three Ehime Maru crew members — remain missing.