HONOLULU - — The ranking U.S. Navy officer aboard the USS Greeneville testified Tuesday he was “surprised” when the sub’s captain took it to a classified depth despite the presence of 16 civilians who lacked security clearance.
Capt. Robert Brandhuber, testifying for a second day, also told the court of inquiry, now in its second week of proceedings, that he was again surprised when Cmdr. Scott Waddle ordered an “emergency deep” sudden submerging maneuver without informing him in advance.
Brandhuber, chief of staff to the commander of the Pacific Fleet’s submarine force, is the fourth witness to testify before the navy’s highest administrative fact-finding body and the first who was actually on the USS Greeneville during the Feb. 9 accident.
The 6,080-ton attack sub struck and sank the 499-ton Ehime Maru about 18 km off Oahu Island while conducting an “emergency main ballast tank blow” to demonstrate to 16 civilian VIPs on board how a sub can quickly rise to the surface in an emergency. Nine Japanese were lost at sea after the collision.
“I was surprised that we were at test depth,” Brandhuber testified, using navy jargon referring to depths that exceed 800 feet (around 240 meters) — the maximum operating depth that the navy can make public. The actual maximum operating depth is a closely guarded secret, as is speed capability.
“They exceeded the 800 feet,” he added.
Brandhuber said he was surprised when Waddle ordered “emergency deep” in preparation for the “emergency blow.”
“I didn’t know that it was going to happen,” he said. “The captain was on the (peri-) scope, and he said, ’emergency deep!’ And it surprised me.”
Emergency deep is a maneuver whereby the sub rapidly submerges to avoid a collision. But navy officials said it is not necessary, or typical, to do so before performing an emergency blow.
Waddle’s carrying out of the unscheduled maneuver, which came atop a series of other time-slashing actions he ordered after a lunch with the civilians ran over its scheduled time, has led several navy officials to testify that he was cutting corners and jeopardizing safety in the process.
Brandhuber answered affirmatively when Vice Adm. John Natham — one of the three admirals on the inquiry panel who will issue a set of recommendations after the proceedings conclude — asked him whether as the senior officer on board he would expect to be informed of the “emergency deep” maneuver in advance.
But he said he was aware ahead of time that the sub would be practicing an emergency blow on Feb. 9, noting it was in the plan of the day.
Testimony so far has shown that prior to the emergency blow, the sub’s officer of the deck performed an initial periscope search, after which Waddle made his own search but still failed to see the white-colored Ehime Maru against the waves less than 3,658 meters away.
The sub was only at periscope depth for an estimated 80 seconds, as opposed to the recommended three to five minutes, significantly limiting opportunities for visual and electronic detection.
When he ordered the emergency deep, Waddle lacked vital sonar information about the Ehime Maru held by a fire control technician, whose job was to analyze sonar information and who failed to pass it on to his superiors.
By the time the Greeneville submerged to a point from which to “blow,” the Ehime Maru had closed to the very spot where the sub surfaced.
The designated subjects of the inquiry, which is expected to last several weeks, are Waddle, 41, the sub’s executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Pfeifer, 38, and officer of the deck Lt. j.g. Michael Coen, 26.
The skipper’s civilian counsel has said the defense team will try to demonstrate that he acted responsibly, given the information he had, and that the collision was an unfortunate accident rather than a callous act.
Ehime Maru skipper Hisao Onishi was to testify Wednesday morning about what he knew and saw before, during and immediately after the accident.
His public allegation just after accident that the Greeneville’s crew did nothing to help rescue those who had been on his vessel left many Japanese outraged, but the navy has flatly denied the claim, insisting the sub was fully involved in the rescue effort.
Brandhuber testified Monday that the civilians were carefully supervised and did not appear to be disrupting vital communications among crew members in the crucial moments leading up to the collision.
He said the sub’s maneuvers, which included a series of high-speed dives and turns called “angles and dangles,” were carried out faster than he preferred, though not so unreasonably that he felt a need to step in and overrule the sub’s captain.