Guests, failure of display cited at start of Greeneville inquiry

HONOLULU — The presence of civilian guests and deficiencies in the personnel and equipment aboard the USS Greeneville before it collided with the Ehime Maru were highlighted Monday in the U.S. Navy’s formal inquiry in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Rear. Adm. Charles Griffiths, the submarine group commander who conducted a preliminary investigation into the Feb. 9 accident, testified on the opening day of the inquiry that one of the sub’s sonar units was operated by an unsupervised trainee because the supervisor had been ordered to act as a tour guide for 16 civilian visitors aboard the vessel.

Griffiths also said the Greeneville was rushing through an emergency surfacing maneuver when it struck the Ehime Maru because the submarine was 45 minutes behind schedule after lunch for the civilian visitors had taken too long.

The large number of civilians aboard the sub extended the lunch-hour by 45 minutes because the wardroom could only seat 10 at a time, Griffiths said.

After lunch, the sub’s navigator warned the captain, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, that the Greeneville was running late for a scheduled 2 p.m. return time to a point just outside Pearl Harbor channel, according to the admiral. If the sub arrived late, the harbor master would have to reschedule tugs and dock workers.

Griffiths said the duration of the periscope search conducted amid such circumstances — 80 seconds — was too short, especially given the hazy weather conditions at the time.

“That ship (the Ehime Maru) should have been seen, given enough time, by the periscope operator,” he said, adding that the periscope should have been raised higher above the waves and swells.

Griffiths also said that Waddle ordered a sonar check of only five minutes’ duration prior to the maneuver — half the normal time. Records show the check actually lasted about six minutes.

Waddle’s statements since the accident have led Griffiths to believe that the captain “wanted to get to periscope depth in a hurry,” he said. Periscope checks are used to visually confirm that an area is clear of vessels or other hazards before surfacing.

Griffiths also said that one of the key pieces of equipment, an audiovisual signal display unit that provides remote capability on the periscope stand, was broken.

Because of this, the sub’s executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Pfeifer, 38, had to go back and forth between the deck and the sonar room.

Pfeifer is one of the designated parties to the inquiry together with Waddle, 41, who was relieved of his command after the accident, and the officer of the deck at the time of the accident, Lt. j.g. Michael Coen, 26.

The admiral testified that the central instrument display in the control room failed shortly after the sub left harbor, forcing Waddle and his officers to continually leave the control room during the fateful trip to read instruments in adjacent rooms.

Recalling a past occasion when he himself had skippered a submarine without the central instrument display, Griffiths said he had “felt somewhat naked. It was a big deal,” when the display went down.

Griffiths said crewmen who were not fully qualified were working in the control room at the time of the accident.

The sub’s fire-control technician, who reportedly plotted the Ehime Maru at less than 3,700 meters from the sub and closing to 1,800 meters, is also to be investigated.

Griffiths also told the inquiry that the large number of civilians inside the sub’s cramped control room disrupted vital communications between the senior officers in the room and technicians tracking the ship.

Waddle has said he was never informed of the sonar reading from the sailor despite standing orders that the captain be notified of any sonar contact with a vessel within 9,100 meters.

Griffiths said the sub’s fire-control operator, whose job was to analyze sonar information, found passive sonar evidence of a ship nearby but failed to notify the officer of the deck or the captain.

The sailor has reportedly claimed that the large number of civilians in the room blocked his line of sight and communications.

“There is no reason why he shouldn’t speak up — period — as his primary duty is to assure the safety of the ship,” Griffiths said. “A physical barrier is not insurmountable, particularly when you have an urgent report.”

Griffiths said the fire-control operator inexplicably appeared to feel out of the communications loop, “almost like he was benched in the game at that point in the game.”

Pfeifer, meanwhile, has reportedly told investigators that he believed Waddle was rushing preparations for the surfacing maneuver, but remained silent because he did not want to challenge his superior in front of the guests.

The court of inquiry opened with a pledge by Vice Adm. John Nathman, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Naval Air Force and one of three U.S. Navy admirals on the four-member panel, to “get to the facts.”

The “tragic consequences” of the Feb. 9 collision between the 6,080-ton Greeneville and the 499-ton Ehime Maru “have impacted the lives of both Japanese and American families,” Nathman said. “While this inquiry cannot change what has happened, a more thorough understanding of what occurred can serve to prevent its recurrence.”

Griffiths, who has overall command of all subs on the U.S. West Coast, is also the officer who carried out the initial investigation into the accident and documented a series of errors by the sub’s crew.

The confidential report was submitted Feb. 16 to the Pacific Fleet commander, Adm. Thomas Fargo, who ordered the court of inquiry, a rare administrative fact-finding forum generally reserved for the severest cases of suspected negligence.

The navy has publicly asserted there is no evidence that the presence of civilian guests on the sub contributed to the accident, even though two of them were at control stations during the emergency surfacing maneuver, including one at the helm.

Griffiths agreed, saying the visitors had “no bearing on this collision” as they were carefully supervised and “procedures were followed exactly.”

On Tuesday morning, the court members and counsels were to visit the dry-docked Greeneville’s control room with Griffiths, and then a sub training center where they will observe a submarine simulator.

Griffiths is due to be cross-examined by defense counsel in the afternoon session.