Tragic Mishap Downs Japanese Trawler

Monday, February 12, 2001
As hopes of finding survivors faded, anguished relatives of the nine Japanese missing after a surfacing U.S. submarine sank their trawler off Hawaii pleaded to have the wreck raised so they could discover if it was the tomb of their loved ones. The request -- also being pushed strongly by the Japanese government -- was forwarded to top U.S. government officials, but a key investigator said he saw no reason at present to recover the 499-ton Ehime Maru from its watery grave 1,800 ft. (548 m) below the ocean surface.

Addressing reporters on Sunday night for the first time since arriving in Hawaii, National Transportation Safety Board investigator John Hammerschmidt said he did not believe it was necessary to bring the ship up to discover accident details, but he added he might change that view as the probe progressed.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard said it would remain focused for at least one more day on searching for survivors of the disaster caused when the nuclear-powered submarine USS Greeneville shot out of the depths directly underneath the trawler being used as a fisheries training school. The Coast Guard said it would continue a widening search for the missing. By Monday, search aircraft and ships will have covered an area of more than 6,500 sq. m. Hopes of finding survivors have dimmed because most of the missing are believed to have been below deck at the time of the collision. The chances of surviving more than three days in the water without a life raft are slim. The accident has drawn angry criticism in the Japanese media, especially after the captain of the Ehime Maru lashed out at the Greeneville for not having sent sailors or life boats overboard.

U.S. officials rejected that criticism on Sunday. "The Greeneville did assist as best they could. Given the sea conditions and the configuration of the submarine, other actions such as launching boats or pulling people out would have only increased the risks," Coast Guard Capt. Steven Newell, chief of operations for the Coast Guard in the western Pacific, said. Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Dave Werner added, "You can be sure the crew of the Greeneville was working feverishly to get information to the people who could best assist in the recovery of survivors."

About 30 relatives of the nine missing and presumed dead crew members pressed U.S. officials in a meeting on Sunday to raise the doomed ship. Newell told reporters: "The request has been made of the U.S. government. We are aware of that request and it is in process. The families had a significant number of questions about salvaging the vessel. We were not in a position to answer those questions."

He added: "We have discounted the idea that there may be people trapped in the hull and still alive. There is a possibility that the bodies are still in the vessel, but we won't know that for sure and we will not suspend our search-and-rescue efforts on that possibility." Of the 35 people on board the Japanese vessel, 26 were rescued. Four of the missing are 17-year-olds who were on the ship as part of commercial fisheries training. Newell said that during the closed-door meeting the relatives asked about the cause of the accident, but those questions could only be addressed once results came in from probes under way. "The relatives asked to be taken to the site of the collision, about 9 miles (14 km) south of Diamond Head, and the Coast Guard is considering that request," he said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, appearing on television talk shows, renewed Washington's expressions of regret on Sunday. "It was a terrible tragedy, we know that, and there is still a search-and-rescue operation taking place to try to find the missing people. ... We're doing everything humanly possible to try to find the remaining participants on that ship," Rumsfeld said.

Asked about possible compensation, he said: "The United States government has brought the families over, and it's been putting people up and taking care of the situation. And certainly it will do the proper thing when the facts are fully sorted out." In a separate appearance, Powell said Washington had apologized to Japan "every way we know how. ... We're doing everything we can to express our regret and also to make sure this doesn't affect the very strong relationship that we have with Japan." The 360-ft. Greeneville, which sailed back to Pearl Harbor on Saturday, was practicing an emergency surfacing procedure when it crashed into the Japanese ship. Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said the Navy's investigation would focus on that procedure. He said the submarine should have conducted both an acoustic and visual search prior to surfacing. The U.S. Pacific Fleet said the commander of the Greeneville, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, 41, was reassigned pending the results of the probe. - (Reuters)

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