HONOLULU – – The captain of the Japanese fisheries training ship sunk last month by a U.S. Navy submarine gave a harrowing account of the accident in testimony Wednesday before a high-level navy panel and called for the inquiry into its causes to be thorough to prevent similar disasters.
“I would like this court of inquiry to thoroughly investigate why this terrible accident occurred and to find some way to ensure safety so that this kind of accident can be prevented in the future,” Hisao Onishi said.
Onishi, 58, was asked to testify about what happened Feb. 9 before, during and immediately after the 6,080-ton USS Greeneville hit the 499-ton Ehime Maru during a rapid surfacing maneuver about 18 km off Oahu Island, leaving nine Japanese students, teachers and crew lost at sea.
In the presence of the Greeneville’s then captain, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, Onishi recounted how the Ehime Maru was sailing out to sea into fine weather, away from somewhat hazy skies, when the sub slammed into it from below.
“We felt an impact as if the stern of the ship was lifted up,” Onishi said, adding that a loud metal clanging sound was heard twice from somewhere between the helm and the stack, and the ship came to a halt.
Waddle’s civilian counsel, Charles Gittins, told Onishi in the courtroom, “I want you to know that Cmdr. Waddle, as the commanding officer of the submerged submarine, accepts responsibility for this accident.”
Onishi said he tried to switch the Ehime Maru’s autopilot to manual, but the displays on the wheel stand’s instrument panel had all gone off.
Noticing a sub off the long-liner’s port quarter and then realizing his ship was taking on water, Onishi picked up a microphone to order everyone to prepare to abandon ship. The microphone, however, was also dead.
Onishi said that with water rising at his heels, he ordered a crew member to gather people at a prearranged location on deck behind the bridge. A number of students and crewmen were brought there.
He said people around him were shouting and checking to see whether everyone had their life jackets on, “but nobody was in any state where they could respond to such calls because they were clinging to handrails and other structural parts of the ship.”
Immediately afterward, he said, water reached the rear of the bridge area and many people were thrown into the sea.
“I was not even able to drop the life rafts, but was thrown out of the ship into the water by the waves and pushed a great distance from the ship.”
Glancing back at the crippled Ehime Maru, he said he saw a number of crew members and students still on the compass deck.
All 10 of the ship’s life rafts had automatically been separated from the vessel, with only one ending up upside down. Those in the ocean climbed aboard and helped others in. Three of the occupied rafts were tied together while seven empty ones floated away.
“Around the raft I was aboard, there were many things floating, including fishing floats. I was hoping to find somebody clinging to them. We yelled and searched, but were unable to find anybody,” Onishi said.
He said the Ehime Maru remained level as it sank, except at the very end, when its bow lifted up and disappeared beneath the waves.
The ship, which is resting on the seabed at a depth of some 600 meters, belongs to Uwajima Fisheries High School in Ehime Prefecture. It had been carrying 35 students, teachers and crew members on a training expedition to teach commercial fishing techniques.
In a news conference in Honolulu the day after the accident, Onishi harshly criticized the Greeneville’s crew, saying they did nothing to help the survivors and that rescue efforts did not start until the U.S. Coast Guard arrived about an hour later.
His remarks left many Japanese outraged.
But U.S. Navy officials have testified that attack subs such as the Greeneville have very limited capabilities to perform search and rescue operations and that Waddle’s decision to await Coast Guard help rather than attempting to open the sub’s hatches to release life boats was prudent as the crash occurred relatively close to shore.
They insist the sub was fully involved in the rescue effort, both in the initial search for survivors and in coordinating the dispatch of coast guard helicopters and surface ships to the scene.
Onishi said he initially believed the sub had left the area, but it then reversed course and returned, drifting near them with two or three people watching from the conning tower.
“We were hoping that they would lower their inflatable rubber boats, but the only thing they did was lower the Jacob’s ladder,” he said, adding that they were too far away to communicate verbally.
Rear Adm. Albert Konetzni, head of the Pacific Fleet Submarine Force, told the inquiry Monday that the search and rescue operation was “perfect” and that he was “very upset” to hear Onishi suggest otherwise.
Captain to captain
HONOLULU (Kyodo) Cmdr. Scott Waddle, former captain of the submarine USS Greeneville, apologized Wednesday to the captain of the Japanese high school fisheries training ship that his sub accidentally sank last month off Hawaii, the Japanese Consulate General in Honolulu said.
Waddle conveyed his “sense of apology” to Ehime Maru skipper Hisao Onishi, saying he is “sorry and regretful” for the Feb. 9 accident, in which nine Japanese were lost at sea, the consulate said.
Waddle, who was relieved of his command after the accident, told Onishi that he wants to go to Japan to apologize to other survivors and relatives of the missing, it said.
Onishi responded that he understands Waddle’s feelings.
Waddle made the apology in the morning in an anteroom of the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry where Onishi the same day gave testimony on the collision.
On March 8, Waddle directly apologized for the first time to relatives of some of the nine missing, extending his “sincere apology” for the loss of life.
The inquiry is looking into possible cases of negligence by Waddle and two other Greeneville officers.