Sub Disaster: Civilians Deny Responsibility

Thursday, February 15, 2001
Two of the civilians aboard a U.S. submarine that collided with a Japanese trawler -- one of whom pulled levers to surface the sub -- denied that they distracted the crew and contributed to the tragedy. Todd Thoman and John Hall praised the U.S. crew for how they conducted themselves before and after the incident last week off Hawaii's coast, and said they believed all the correct procedures had been followed. Nine people are still missing from the Japanese fishing trawler, the Ehime Maru, which sank in about 1,800 ft. (548 m) of water nine miles (14 km) off Diamond Head, Hawaii. Hopes for a rescue are fading. Thoman and Hall were among a group of 16 civilians on board the USS Greeneville, which was on a brief training mission when it surfaced beneath a Japanese fishing trawler. Asked by NBC's "Today" show whether their presence was a distraction, Thoman said: "I adamantly deny this is the case. ... It was nothing but professional and not one thing got done that the commanding officer was not aware of." U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said there was no evidence the civilians contributed to the accident. Navy officials have said that two civilians who were at control positions were under strict supervision when the sub rose rapidly to the surface, hitting the Japanese vessel. Hall, who was asked by the captain to pull the levers that kick off the return of the submarine to the surface, said he was elbow-to-elbow with the crew all the time. "You don't do anything on this vessel without someone either showing you how to do it, telling you how to do it or escorting you around," he said. After pulling the levers, the submarine began to rise about 10 seconds later. "There was a very loud noise and the entire submarine shuddered," said Hall, describing what happened when the submarine hit the Japanese boat. Hall said he vividly remembered the captain's response. "He said 'Jesus, what the hell was that?'," Hall recalled. A second or two later, after looking in the periscope, the captain named the ship that had been hit and told his guests to go to the crew mess. Prior to surfacing, both Hall and Thoman said the crew, including the captain, checked the periscope continuously for any vessels on the surface. While in the crew mess, Thoman said he could see the Japanese boat taking on water. Then the VIPs were sent to the missile room so that the mess could be used as an emergency room. "Once we saw the ship taking on water we knew it was going to be a devastating effect." Both civilians said the submarine's crew responded immediately to the crisis, dismissing criticism that they had ignored the rescue operation. "That's not a valid criticism," said Hall. "It is a tragedy and everyone is very upset, as you can imagine. This is the last thing anyone expected."

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