The U.S. Navy bowed to a request from the captain of the Greeneville and set a March 5 hearing date for an official inquiry into the disaster in which the nuclear sub slammed
into a Japanese fishing trawler, leaving nine people missing, presumed dead. Lawyers for Cmdr. Scott Waddle had asked the Navy to delay a court of inquiry, originally due to begin on Thursday, into the fatal collision to give them more time to prepare.
A Navy spokesman told reporters on Thursday that the Navy had acceded to the March 5 request after initially moving the date back to Monday, Feb. 26.
The court of inquiry will determine whether disciplinary action should be taken against Waddle and two other officers in the Feb. 9 accident, in which the nuclear submarine abruptly surfaced and sank the Japanese trawler Ehime Maru.
Nine people are missing and presumed dead from the trawler
, which was carrying students from a Japanese high school on a fisheries training project. Twenty-six people were rescued in the tragedy that has strained U.S.-Japan ties. Meanwhile, reports circulated on Thursday that the Navy was probing whether civilians distracted a key crew member. The Navy said it could not comment on reports that civilians on board the sub were "distracting" at least one crew member shortly before the Greeneville surfaced and rammed the Ehime Maru.
NBC, quoting sources familiar with the Navy investigation, reported that the sonar aboard the Greeneville did, in fact, detect the Japanese ship only minutes before the crash. But that information was never passed on to the captain.
The NBC "Nightly News" report said the investigation revealed the submarine's sonar detected the fishing boat at an estimated 4,000 yards away, but closing fast. The report said the next sonar contact came when the boat was only 2000 yards away, much closer than previously thought.
But the investigation also shows the technician who is supposed to track contacts and shout them out to the captain remained silent, NBC reported. Navy spokesman Lt.-Cmdr. Flex Plexico said that statements by the Greeneville's sonar plotter that he was unable to finish plotting blips because civilians were in his way could be raised at the court of inquiry, which will be held at Pearl Harbor.
"That's one of the things that may be looked at during the court of inquiry," Plexico said, adding that further comment on the statement would be "inappropriate" prior to the hearing.
National Transportation Safety Board officials have said that the sonar plotter on the submarine -- a crew member who notes contact with other possible ships -- told them he was unable to finish plotting sonar blips because the civilians were in his way.
John Hammerschmidt, an NTSB spokesman, said the Greeneville made sonar contact with a surface vessel
at 12:32 p.m. local time, and that Navy analysis showed that the contact was the Ehime Maru.
Hammerschmidt said investigators do not know what happened between the 12:32 p.m. sonar contact and the collision, which occurred at 1:43 p.m., adding that the issue "goes to the heart of our investigation."
In Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori lashed out at the United States, calling the accident "extremely deplorable." His top spokesman said Japan might have to take appropriate measures, hinting at possible demands for compensation.
U.S. officials, including President George W. Bush, have apologized for the accident, and U.S. Ambassador Thomas Foley will delay his planned March 1 departure from Tokyo to deal with the issue.
A U.S. embassy spokesman said Washington was considering a request from Japan that a special envoy be sent to explain the accident. Submarine Crew members told the NTSB they saw no ships during a periscope sweep before the surfacing maneuver which sank the Japanese vessel. Two of the civilians aboard the sub at the time of the accident were at the controls. Japan has asked the U.S. government to raise the vessel but experts say that would be technically very difficult and could take months. - (Reuters)