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A troubling picture is beginning to emerge as details are revealed about conditions aboard the USS Greeneville when the submarine hit the training vessel Ehime Maru last week. That accident left nine students and instructors aboard the fisheries training ship missing — they are presumed dead — and injured a dozen others. It is too early to rush to judgment, but we, along with the rest of the nation, await the results of a full and open investigation. The trust, friendship and alliance between our two countries may well depend on it.

The chief question hanging over the events is: What effect did the presence of 16 civilians have on the submarine’s operations that day? It is disturbing to know that civilians were present in critical areas of the Greeneville at the time of the accident. It boggles the mind to discover that those individuals actually had their hands on controls as the submarine undertook maneuvers that are routinely described as “dramatic.” That word only hints at the dangers involved, and in this case those dangers were not the ones originally intended.

The U.S. Navy insists that the presence of the civilians had no influence on actual operations aboard the submarine. Furthermore, while conceding that two people were at the controls, there was “hands-on” supervision at all times and the civilians did not contribute to the mishap. That, of course, is the key question.

News reports now suggest that the civilians may have had an impact. It has been revealed that all 16 of the guests were in the control room — a tight space — at the time of the accident. In addition, a federal investigator has said that a fire-control technician, the crew member who plots the position of the submarine and other ships in the area, stopped working because of the presence of the civilians. A U.S. newspaper has said that the Ehime Maru’s sonar signature was picked up two nautical miles from the Greeneville — over an hour before the accident — but was not reported to the ship’s commander.

There are more questions. If the sonar staff is supposed to consist of two trained operators and a supervisor, why were only one trained operator and supervisor — the third person was a trainee — present during the maneuver? And, just as important, why was the “emergency main ballast blow” performed? To impress the guests?

It is hard to believe that the civilian presence did not have an impact, but fairness demands that judgment be withheld until all the investigations are completed. That means that the inquiries must proceed as methodically and publicly as possible. That may not be as easy as it sounds: Already, the investigation by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has been frustrated by the refusal of the submarine commander and two other executive officers to appear, claiming that they must first testify before the official U.S. Navy inquiry.

To its credit, the U.S. Navy has decided to hold a court of inquiry, its highest-level administrative investigation, into the accident. The willingness to hold the inquiry in public is also welcome. Responsibility must be affixed for the tragic events that occurred on Feb. 10, but that means examining the entire chain of circumstances that led to the accident — including the public-relations program that resulted in the presence of 16 civilians aboard a U.S. submarine performing dangerous maneuvers in international waters.

All of Japan awaits the conclusion of the inquiry and answers to these questions. In the meantime, we urge the United States to continue its efforts to find the missing students and sailors. No effort should be spared, even if that means raising the Ehime Maru from the seabed. This nation stands ready to provide whatever assistance it can.

The U.S. apologies and messages of condolence have conveyed the seriousness with which that country views this incident and are much appreciated. There is little that can be done for the families that have lost loved ones, but the sincerity of those comments means a great deal. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Foley has done much to reassure this country, and his willingness to stay on past his original departure date is another sign of the gravity that Washington attaches to the accident and its impact on the relationship between our two countries. The dispatch of a special envoy, which is being discussed in Washington, is another signal of U.S. concern.

A terrible tragedy occurred on Feb. 10 in the waters off Hawaii. We would like to see an end to the speculation about the events of that day. There should be no hesitation in the investigation into the sinking of the Ehime Maru and a willingness to pursue the inquiry wherever it may lead.

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