- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2001

The Pentagon is sending a Navy deep-sea drone to Hawaii to survey a sunken Japanese fishing vessel as part of efforts to determine the fate of nine persons missing since a collision with a U.S. submarine, defense officials said yesterday.

The undersea search vehicle will be used to "locate and inspect" the fishing trawler Ehime Maru on the ocean floor, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"The information from this inspection will help us respond to the Japanese government request to salvage the vessel," said one Pentagon official.

The drone, the Super Scorpio remote-operated vehicle, will be sent from San Diego to Hawaii within the next day. It can operate at a depth of 5,000 feet.

Another official said the Pentagon is "making an assessment" for a recovery and salvage operation that might be conducted by a commercial salvage company, rather than the U.S. Navy.

Defense officials said a preliminary assessment of the incident is that the steel-reinforced tail rudder of the USS Greeneville sliced through the hull of the Japanese research fishing trawler during the submarine's rapid ascent.

A senior defense official said the collision was an unusual mishap in open ocean waters. "It would be hard to do this if you intended to," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Damage to the Greeneville includes scrapes on the port side hull behind the sail, or conning tower, and to the rudder a 5-foot high steel fin that is part of the submarine's propulsion and steering mechanism. The rudder is made to be able to break through ice, defense officials said.

The incident is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Navy, headed by Rear Adm. Charles Griffiths Jr. The submarine commander has been relieved of duty during the probe.

White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that nothing yet indicates the submarine's crew was at fault because proper procedures appear to have been followed.

In practicing an emergency surfacing, procedures call for submarines to rise close to the surface first and scan the area by periscope for other ships before submerging further and bringing up the submarine steeply at a 15- to 20-degree angle. The standard practice calls for a periscope scan of the surface in every direction using both high- and low-power viewing.

Asked if the U.S. government would raise the Japanese vessel, Miss Rice said on NBC's "Today" show: "Well, we'll certainly want to talk to the Japanese about what they have in mind. I think nothing is off the table, but we'll have to talk to them… . There is much discussion about what to do about this terribly tragic accident."

NTSB investigator John Hammerschmidt told reporters the submarine used "passive" sonar, which is less accurate than its active sonar system.

A State Department official confirmed that Japan has requested that the United States consider "raising this trawler."

"We're looking into it, but no decisions have been made yet," the senior defense official said.

Nine persons, including crew members and four teens on a fishing trip, are missing and presumed dead from the Friday accident nine miles off the Hawaiian coast.

President Bush offered a silent prayer for the victims during a visit yesterday to Fort Stewart, Ga. "I would ask for your prayers for those still missing," he said.

Former Navy submariners told The Washington Times there are several possible scenarios.

One theory has the submarine's commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Scott Waddle, following procedures, but not noticing the ship.

The submarine's passive sonar detected no sound from a surface ship. When the Greeneville went to periscope depth of 45 feet, the ship failed to appear, perhaps hidden in 6- to 8-foot waves.

The ship then submerged to a depth of 400 feet and prepared for a practice emergency surfacing, or "blow," a procedure required twice a year for submarine crews. But the Greeneville, perhaps, loitered too long, giving the Japanese ship time to cross the sub's path.

Submarine experts unanimously said it is highly unlikely Cmdr. Waddle failed to follow the sonar and periscope requirements, especially given the fact that a more senior leader, Capt. Robert Brandhuber, was escorting a group of 15 civilian observers.

"I'm personally flabbergasted at the report that the sub was conducting an emergency main ballast blow exercise," said one ex-Navy submariner. "I can't imagine any submarine skipper doing that as an exercise in a known traffic area and without full knowledge of the surface picture above."

This source thought it unlikely that an experienced Navy crew would loiter before surfacing.

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