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Collision at Sea

An American submarine surfaced under a Japanese fishing boat yesterday, sinking the smaller craft. Nine Japanese are feared dead. Gwen Ifill talks with Navy Captain Jim Bush and military author Sherry Sontag about what went wrong.

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  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    With hope fading 48 hours after the collision, victims' relatives who arrived in Honolulu Sunday awaited word on whether there were any more survivors. The accident occurred at 1:45 PM Friday local time, about 20 miles Southeast of Pearl Harbor. The 190-foot Japanese fishing vessel "Ehime Maru" was carrying 13 high school students in addition to its crew of 22. The boat sank in 1,800 feet of water after it was struck by a fast-rising U.S. attack submarine.

    The 360-foot nuclear-powered U.S.S. "Greeneville" was practicing an ascent maneuver like this, called an emergency ballast blow, when it struck the Japanese vessel. 26 people were saved. Reports differ on how long it took the Coast Guard to arrive and begin the rescue operation. Navy and Coast Guard boats and helicopters are sweeping an area more than three times the size of Rhode Island in the Pacific Ocean in their search for nine people still missing, including four 17-year-old fishery students. At a press conference Saturday, the captain of the "Ehime Maru" complained the rescue wasn't fast enough.

  • CAPTAIN HISAO ONISHI:

    (speaking through interpreter) We saw several people appear at the hatch. Then they lowered a ladder for us, but not a single one of my crew was saved by the submarine. It was just like they stood by and watched.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    But the Navy said the deck of the "Greeneville" was awash in high waves.

  • ADMIRAL THOMAS FARGO:

    That precludes the submarine from being able to open her hatches out there and take people onboard safely. But U.S.S. "Greeneville" was fully involved in the rescue effort both immediately after the accident and throughout the night.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    The "Greeneville" returned to its port at Pearl Harbor, where its captain, Commander Scott Waddle, was relieved of his post pending the results of the investigation. Throughout the weekend, U.S. officials issued apologies.

  • DONALD RUMSFELD:

    All I can say to the families and the people of Japan is that we feel deep regrets about the incident, and we'll do everything humanly possible to determine what actually took place.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Japan's prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, spoke about the accident on Saturday.

  • YOSHIRO MORI:

    (speaking through interpreter) I pray the missing are found as soon as possible. I spoke just a while ago with the foreign minister. It was reported that the United States extended its apologies and promised its utmost efforts to find the missing.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    But Prime Minister Mori's spokesman said he has formally lodged a protest with the U.S., and is demanding the Japanese vessel be razed from the ocean floor. Coast Guard officials said search and rescue efforts were expected to continue at least through this afternoon.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Joining us are retired Navy Captain Jim Bush, who commanded both diesel and nuclear submarines in the Pacific and Atlantic; and Sherry Sontag, who has written extensively about submarines. She is co-author of "Blind Man's Bluff," a book about submarine espionage. There are a couple of issues that have been raised here. First, the rapid ascent. Captain Bush, what is exactly the procedure for doing that, and why do you want to do a rapid ascent?

  • CAPT. JIM BUSH (Ret.):

    Well, a rapid ascent is a legitimate exercise for a submarine to do on rare occasions. It's unlikely that you would have to use a rapid ascent. However, if you're going to do that in peacetime, you have to make sure that there's absolutely no chance that you're going to hit a ship when you surface. There's a lot of ways that you can do this. You come up to periscope depth, put up your periscope, look around, you listen with your listening sonar, you could use your active sonar. If you wanted to be really certain, you could surface and use your radar to make sure that there were no ships in the area. Having done this, you then go down to whatever depth you want to practice your emergency surface from, and you surface from down there. But before you practice that emergency surface, you make absolutely certain that there is no possibility that there would be a civilian ship in the area.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    All right. Let's take some of these things one at a time. The emergency ascent, the rapid ascent, it's for an emergency. If something goes wrong down below and you need to get up in a hurry, that's what this is all about.

  • CAPT. JIM BUSH (Ret.):

    That's true.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    What they were doing off the coast of Hawaii, they were just practicing this emergency procedure, correct?

  • CAPT. JIM BUSH (Ret.):

    That's correct.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Which is a routine thing?

  • CAPT. JIM BUSH (Ret.):

    It's a routine thing. But also it's peacetime. There was not an emergency. So the thing that you want to do as a good submariner is make absolutely certain that there's no ship there when you surface.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    All right. Now let's take… for instance, you mentioned three or four things they could have done and probably did do. We'll assume they did do. First of all, you look through the periscope. Based on your experience, how good a look is that? What can you really see through the periscope when you come up like they must have done?

  • CAPT. JIM BUSH (Ret.):

    Well, you come up and you can see very well through the periscope, but the fact of the matter is, because of the sea or some other problem– rain– if you couldn't see, you wouldn't practice the surface. If you weren't absolutely certain that there was no ship there, you would not practice an emergency surface.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Now, the sonar and the radar, those are back-ups, then, to sight? Would you agree with that?

  • CAPT. JIM BUSH (Ret.):

    Well, they're back-ups to sight, but radar could be very significant, significantly useful to determine whenever it's possible, even plausible, for a ship to be in the area.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    So, based on your experience, if the captain did everything along the lines you outlined before, it's almost impossible to have happened what happened over the weekend?

  • CAPT. JIM BUSH (Ret.):

    That's exactly correct. If he had taken every precaution possible, it was almost impossible for that to have happened.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Now, Sherry Sontag, this has happened before. In 1989 it happened, did it not, with a similar submarine? Well, you tell us.

  • SHERRY SONTAG, Journalist/Author:

    Off the coast of San Diego Beach, the "Houston" was… actually, that same day it was filming "Hunt for Red October." It came up, but this time it came up to periscope depth and somehow snagged a cable between where a tugboat was pulling two barges and then pulled the barges down. There have been times that we had submarines come up under great shipping freighters during the Cold War, under a Vietnamese freighter, but that's more in wartime.

    That's more when you are trying to sort of, you know, come up stealthily. Maybe you don't want to come up twice. This is just amazing, the idea that you can come up under a fishing boat that is that large, and on top of that end up with a boat that had high school kids on it. The submariners were sending out an e-mail today where they were, like, doing a fake dialogue of what they would have had on their boats had they come up. It was six pages of back-and- forth between sonar, con, and the diving officers and everything else. I mean, they were all sitting there flabbergasted that anything like this could go on.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Was there an explanation offered in this?

  • SHERRY SONTAG:

    You know, they were just talking about two things. They were talking about how somebody's career is over, and they're talking about how upset the guys on board must be, because submariners do not like the idea that they're going to bring down civilians. They don't like the idea that they're going to bring down enemy submariners. I mean, I will tell you that the folks on the "Greeneville" are probably rather depressed today. It's a mystery. I think everybody is pretty anxious to hear the briefing tonight– it's supposed to be 9:00 PM Eastern Time– to find out a little bit more about how this could have happened.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Captain Bush, what about the weather? What affect would the weather have on all this? I mean, it's said, for instance, that there were choppy waves, six or seven feet high, that sort of thing. Under your experience, you'd say forget it, don't do the rapid ascent in that kind of circumstance?

  • CAPT. JIM BUSH (Ret.):

    Certainly. If you were not absolutely certain that there was no ship up there, you don't do the rapid ascent. You don't do the emergency surfacing procedure.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Now the second…

  • CAPT. JIM BUSH (Ret.):

    And the…

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Go ahead. Yes, sir.

  • CAPT. JIM BUSH (Ret.):

    I was just going to say, as far as picking up survivors goes…

  • JIM LEHRER:

    That's the next issue. What do you think about that?

  • CAPT. JIM BUSH (Ret.):

    Well, every mariner in the world understands that if you have a collision and there are casualties in the water, you do everything possible to try to pick up those casualties. Now, they're not going to open their hatches on the deck, but they did have the hatch open in the conning tower. Let the people over the side of the conning tower. They have a safety track on the ship that they could have put people… attached them to the safety track with life belts on, and they could have had a line to go out and try and catch survivors, but the important thing is that you do everything you can. Now, if that submarine did everything it could, okay.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    We don't know that yet, right, Miss Sontag? What were you going to say?

  • SHERRY SONTAG:

    What I was going to say, as I was watching the pictures of the seas shortly after this accident, and the waves crashing over, if what you've got is you've got lifeboats out there and people are being pulled into it, maybe the best thing you can do off the conning tower is use your binocs, if the people in the ocean are already doing a pretty good job about pulling themselves out and into the life boats, because you can also lose more people if you just throw everybody over. I mean, when the "Kachina" went down…

  • JIM LEHRER:

    What was that? Tell us about that.

  • SHERRY SONTAG:

    The "Kachina" was our first spy sub we had sent off from waters of the Barents. It went down. The "Tusk" was nearby, another submarine, and the "Kachina" was trying so hard to tell the "Tusk" how bad things were they sent over a raft with two guys on it. The raft overturned. In order to save those two guys, six guys on the "Tusk" died, and one of the guys in the raft did. So basically if you think the people in the water are doing a pretty good job of taking care of themselves, and you've got the binocs and you have the stats where you can look further out and see where everybody else is, that may be the best thing to do until you know that there's something only you can do. Remember, these people weren't just floundering. In fact, the kids, the high school kids, I heard reported, said they thought their friends that were lost may have been below decks.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Dow below decks. Yes, captain. You wanted to say.

  • CAPT. JIM BUSH (Ret.):

    Well, the "Kachina" and "Tusk" is a very good example. The "Kachina" had a battery explosion. The "Tusk" came alongside. They rescued the people from the "Kachina," and some people from the "Tusk" were killed, but the point is that you… when you see a ship in distress, you do everything you can to deal with the survivors. Now, if the captain of the "Greeneville" feels that he did everything he could, okay, and if the Navy thinks they did everything they could, okay.

  • SHERRY SONTAG:

    Captain Bush, isn't it possible that the best they could do at that moment was, like I said, use the binocs and make sure that the people were getting into those life rafts?

  • CAPT. JIM BUSH (Ret.):

    It's possible.

  • SHERRY SONTAG:

    When the folks from the "Kachina" crossed over to "Tusk," you didn't have men on the "Tusk" getting on that shaky plank between the two subs. The "Kachina" guys raced across the planks while the guys on "Tusk" stood on "Tusk" and held on.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    We're not going to be able to resolve that one. Let me just ask you one quick question for each of you – same question. Captain Bush, to you first, based on what you know now and based on your own experience and other submarines, do you think we will eventually get an answer as to what happened in both of these issues, whether or not they did the rescue attempt, whether or not they should have even done the rapid ascent?

  • CAPT. JIM BUSH (Ret.):

    I'm certain that we will have an answer.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    There are no mysteries here, you don't think?

  • CAPT. JIM BUSH (Ret.):

    There won't be any mysteries, and we'll have very thorough investigations.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Sherry Sontag, do you agree?

  • SHERRY SONTAG:

    The Navy can't afford to have a mystery here. This is a foul-up of the worst proportions under the worst possible circumstances. It's in American waters. You have got kids on board a fishing boat. They have to be really open and really transparent in this process or they're never going to survive it.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    All right. Thank you both very much.

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