U.S. naval inquiry reveals inadequate search

HONOLULU — A computerized simulation shown at a navy inquiry Friday revealed the Ehime Maru would have been clearly visible had the USS Greenville conducted a standard three-minute periscope search closer to the surface and at a higher power.

Inquiry participants watched a simulation video of the periscope search that was conducted before the Greeneville struck and sank the Japanese vessel Ehime Maru off Hawaii last month.

The video also demonstrated that, given the choppy seas, overcast skies and 80-second duration of the search, Greeneville Cmdr. Scott Waddle and another officer could have easily missed noticing the boat.

Vice Adm. John Nathman, who is presiding over the court of inquiry into the collision, said the court would not draw sweeping conclusions based on the re-enactment.

“There’s nothing absolute about this,” he said.

Capt. Thomas Kyle, who assisted the National Transportation Safety Board in its investigation into the Feb. 9 accident, said the simulation factored in the depth of the submarine, the duration of the periscope search, the weather conditions on the day of the accident and the size and coloring of the Ehime Maru.

Kyle also testified at the inquiry that a trainee manning a sonar console at the time of the accident was in fact supervised, despite reports to the contrary.

But he added that the trainee was not consistently supervised that day and said he was “very upset” to learn from a sonar inspector that unqualified people appear to be manning sub sonar consoles about 20 percent of the time.

“There is apparently some sense among some of the ships that it’s OK to have a nonqualified watchstander,” Kyle said, adding that there is “no ambiguity” in navy regulations that stipulate sonarmen manning consoles must be either qualified or directly supervised by a qualified person.

Rear Adm. Charles Griffiths, who testified Monday through Thursday, said that several dozen Greeneville crew members were left ashore Feb. 9, including key qualified watchstanders such as sonarmen.

Griffiths, who conducted the navy’s own preliminary investigation, said during his testimony that a series of procedural, mechanical and staffing problems occurred before the accident, including that one of two men manning the sub’s sonar consoles under an overall supervisor was a trainee who was not “personally” and “consistently” supervised.

But Kyle’s testimony revealed that shortly before the Greeneville went to periscope depth in preparation for performing the “emergency blow,” a qualified operator coincidentally came into the sonar room to pick up his jacket.

“He recognized, ‘Hey, this guy sitting here is not a very experienced operator. I’m going to stand behind him and make sure that this goes right,’ ” Kyle said, adding that the qualified operator actively helped the trainee analyze sonar contacts, among them the Ehime Maru.

The sonar findings were then forwarded to the fire control technician in the sub’s control room, who has told investigators the presence of 16 civilian VIPs there prevented him from informing his superiors of the risk of collision. Kyle, testifying on the fifth day of the inquiry, also revealed that a device used to record sonar sounds so they can be used for future analysis was not in use when the 6,080-ton Greeneville performed an emergency-surfacing maneuver that sank the 499-ton Ehime Maru.

He said the sonar tape was taken out to let the civilian visitors hear ocean sounds and the officers in the sonar room forgot to replace it.

Griffith also said during his testimony that an important display unit was out of commission, which significantly reduced the overall awareness of those in the control room, while the presence of civilians there impaired the flow of information among watchstanders.

Moreover, Griffith said, Waddle failed to raise the sub’s periscope high enough or look through it long enough, and he did not spend sufficient time on target motion analysis to increase sonar contact clarity and provide an enhanced bearing for periscope detection.

Griffiths has said key personnel such as the fire control technician failed to step forward and voice concerns about improper procedures and safety.

Navy sources said that while the sonar issues did not cause the accident, they count among the series of oversights and errors in procedure aboard the submarine that call into question the way Waddle ran his ship.

Also being investigated at the inquiry are the sub’s executive officer Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Pfeifer, 38, and officer of the deck at the time, Lt. j.g. Michael Coen, 26.

Nine people — four students and two teachers from Uwajima Fisheries High School in Ehime Prefecture and three Ehime Maru crew members — went missing after the collision and are presumed dead.