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A special envoy dispatched by U.S. President George W. Bush apologized Wednesday in Tokyo to representatives of relatives of nine people still missing after the sinking of a high school fisheries training ship by a U.S. submarine.

Adm. William J. Fallon bows at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Tokyo to representatives of the families of the nine Japanese who remain missing after the sinking of the Ehime Maru.

Adm. William J. Fallon, the vice chief of naval operations, met the families at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Tokyo’s Minato Ward as part of his visit to apologize for the accident.

Fallon, flanked by U.S. Ambassador Thomas Foley, offered the apology as “a representative of the United States, United States Navy” and President Bush.

The admiral said at the outset of the meeting that the Feb. 9 accident has caused great suffering for the families and that he hoped they would accept the apology.

Ryosuke Terata, 45, father of Yusuke Terata, 17, who along with three other students, two teachers and three crew members of the Ehime Maru are still missing, said the families are “well aware of” Washington’s expressions of regret. Mitsunori Nomoto, 53, the father of 17-year-old Katsuya Nomoto, and an Ehime Prefectural Board of Education official were also present at the meeting.

During the meeting, Fallon provided a set of answers to questions posed in a letter presented by the families to the U.S. government. The answers revealed that the feasibility study on salvaging the Ehime Maru will be completed by March 8, and that the Navy will make a decision on whether the operation will be carried out around March 12.

“By March 8, we should have a technical estimate from the experts describing if and how the Ehime Maru can be brought back to the surface. The Navy will complete the proposal evaluation on or about 12 March,” the statement says.

On questions about rescue efforts the submarine made after the collision, the statement maintains that the submarine was “involved immediately” in the rescue effort, carrying out an initial search for survivors and communicating with the coast guard.

It said the submarine’s rescue swimmers were ready to dive into the water to help any members of the Ehime Maru’s crew into rafts, had any been sighted in the water. The statement adds that the Greeneville captain and the crew of the Ehime Maru were “unable to communicate due to language differences.”

At a news conference later at the embassy, Fallon said he would make an unscheduled visit to Uwajima, Ehime Prefecture, today to meet with other family members and give a direct apology.

“The message that I would deliver is very simple. I come seeking their understanding and acceptance of our apology,” and will answer any questions they may have, Fallon said.

On the question of compensating the families, the admiral said the United States is ready to offer compensation once the families feel comfortable about proceeding with it. “We are quite ready to begin the process,” he said.

Touching on the Japanese families’ frustration over the lack of a direct apology from the skipper of the Greeneville, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, Fallon noted there is a “cultural difference.”

“In Japan, no matter what the circumstances are . . . the culture demands an apology,” he said. “That is not the case in the United States. There is a presumption of innocence until (a person is) proved guilty.”

Fallon revealed that the families informed him during their meeting in the morning that they now feel comfortable with ending the coast guard search and with handing the task over to the Navy.

But the admiral said the search would continue. “We will continue looking for any signs of survivors,” he said.

Ceremony planned

UWAJIMA, Ehime Pref. (Kyodo) Honolulu will hold a ceremony Sunday for people affected by the sinking of the Ehime Maru, according to Uwajima Municipal Government officials.

Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris asked Uwajima Mayor Hirohisa Ishibashi to invite people from Uwajima and the rest of the prefecture to attend the ceremony, the officials said Tuesday.

Harris sent the invitation by e-mail, they added.

The officials said Honolulu plans to have a Hawaiian-style ceremony with as little reference to legal, political or military affairs as possible.

The Feb. 9 incident between the submarine USS Greeneville and the fisheries training vessel Ehime Maru, which was carrying 13 high school students and 22 others, occurred off Oahu Island.

The 499-ton Ehime Maru sank and nine of the 35 are presumed dead.

Hawaiian monks pray

HONOLULU (Kyodo) Japanese Buddhist monks in Hawaii have been praying for the nine people missing after the Feb. 9 sinking of the Ehime Maru by a U.S. submarine off Oahu Island, one of the monks said.

“We feel pain thinking of the families of the missing,” said Ryokan Ara, 72, a priest at a local Tendai Sect temple and a board member of the Hawaiian Buddhist Association.

Ara said he and some other association members joined a meeting sponsored by Honolulu’s city government on Friday to pray for the rescue of the nine.

“What Buddhists can do for them is limited but we hope our prayers help the missing people and their families,” he said.

Four teenage students, two teachers from Uwajima Fisheries High School in Ehime Prefecture and three crew members of the 499-ton Ehime Maru are still missing.

The Japanese fisheries training vessel was struck by the USS Greeneville after the sub conducted a rapid surfacing drill that is believed to have been a demonstration for civilians aboard at the time.

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