'What ifs' dog Navy inquiry into sub crash

Court focuses on the captain and a rushed itinerary. More revelations - possibly key - could come.

It had been a full and exciting day for the visitors aboard the USS Greeneville. They'd taken a walk-through tour of the nuclear submarine, watched the Navy crew go through some typical exercises, and gotten a full briefing from the sub's dynamic and gregarious captain. Now they were crowded into the control room, three of them at controls under close supervision, about to feel the power of the 362-foot boat as it surged to the surface in a rapid ascent.

But a happy day turned tragic as the Greeneville tore through the Ehime Maru, a Japanese fishing trawler half its size carrying high school students training for a life at sea.

The picture that emerges after the first week of the US Navy's formal inquiry into the incident presents a singular set of circumstances and actions, any alterations to which might have changed history - avoiding the accident that cost nine lives and left the Ehime Maru 2,003 feet below the surface of the Pacific.

If only the commanding officer hadn't spent so much time over lunch with the civilians, putting the day's planned activities behind schedule. If only the sonar technician hadn't stopped plotting contacts with nearby ships, if the sailors and junior officers hadn't assumed that the respected skipper must be right when they had qualms about how things were going in the hurried moments just before the collision.

If only there hadn't been eight-foot swells, making it difficult to see the Japanese trawler with the periscope poked just a few feet above the surface. If only the officers had taken more than 80 seconds - an unusually short time by Navy standards - to sweep the horizon. If only the Ehime Maru hadn't been painted white and hadn't been pointed straight at the Greeneville, making it even more difficult to see in a choppy sea against an overcast sky.

Witness testimony

The inquiry is expected to continue for several weeks, with more witnesses to appear before the three-admiral panel. More revelations are expected.

"We'll have new plots and subplots," says Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice in Alexandria, Va., and a former US Coast Guard lawyer who now defends military personnel. "The main event may well be yet to come."

The evidence presented so far by Navy investigators and the questioning by the admirals focuses on the man everyone acknowledges is responsible - Cmdr. Scott Waddle - and what investigators say was a rush of activities that in retrospect added up to a deadly encounter.

While the 16 VIPs were passive observers, seasoned officers say, their presence added to the atmosphere and circumstances. "There is no question in my mind that the civilians were the proximate cause of the trouble," says Stansfield Turner, a retired Navy admiral who commanded the Atlantic Fleet. "That, though, is the captain's fault for letting their presence interfere with safety."

A Navy court of inquiry, established under Articles of War dating back just after the American Revolution, is an extremely serious procedure used only in the case of major incidents.

According to Capt. Michael Hinkley, judge advocate for the Navy's Pacific Fleet, "It is generally an extraordinary incident occurring during the course of official duties resulting in multiple deaths, substantial property loss, or substantial harm to the environment where the circumstances suggest a significant departure from the expected level of professionalism, leadership, judgment, communication, state of material readiness, or other standard."

The panel of admirals could order courts-martial for any of the three officers named as "parties" to the inquiry. Criminal charges haven't been ruled out.

Under cross-examination by Commander Waddle's attorney, the chief Navy investigator conceded that the Greeneville's skipper "was not criminally negligent." Waddle's lawyer also is seeking to shift some of the responsibility onto subordinates who may not have provided their commanding officer with the information that could have prevented the collision.

"He's obviously trying to set himself up for defense in a court-martial," says Philip Cave, who spent 20 years as a naval officer and judge advocate general (JAG) lawyer before retiring to private practice in Alexandria, Va.

Request for immunity

It's not clear yet whether Waddle, or any of the other officers, will testify. Their lawyers have asked the court to grant them "testimonial immunity" so that whatever they say could not be used against them in a court-martial. The admirals have yet to act on that request.

For his part, Waddle acknowledges in a Time magazine column that "an accident of this sort, whether or not I am exonerated, will end my career." He wept during the inquiry, and he has personally apologized to the victims' families.

"Regrettably, he will pay the price for a mistake, a mistake that speaks of carelessness which happens in a blink of an eye," says James Tyson, a retired naval officer who commanded an air wing of fighter and attack squadrons aboard an aircraft carrier. "Culpability in the criminal sense does not sound like the right thing to hit him with, but simple negligence is his legacy."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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