Civilians say they didn't distract sub crew
HONOLULU, Hawaii (CNN) -- Two civilians aboard the U.S. submarine that rammed a Japanese fishing vessel off Hawaii "adamantly" denied Thursday that their presence had anything to do with the collision.
The Navy had 15 civilians aboard the USS Greeneville as part of a community relations program, and Japanese officials were surprised to learn that two were sitting at key control stations at the time of the collision. Navy officials said Wednesday that their presence may have distracted the Greeneville's crew.
Todd Thoman, one of the civilians aboard the submarine, rejected that Thursday.
"I adamantly deny that I think that is the actual case," Thoman told NBC's "Today" show. "The minute we walked on board the USS Greeneville, this was a business and it was nothing but professional. And not one thing got done on that submarine that the commanding officer was not made aware of and in total control of."
Another civilian, John Hall, said he was closely supervised while at the USS Greeneville's ballast controls, which control the submarine's ability to dive.
Hall told NBC that Greeneville's skipper, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, and other crew members scanned the horizon at least twice before beginning an emergency surfacing drill last Friday that resulted in the sub's collision with the Japanese vessel Ehime Maru.
"This was the last procedure of the day, and we were going back into Pearl Harbor," Hall said. "We came up to periscope depth, and another member of the crew took the periscope up and made two complete rotations at 360 degrees.
"The skipper, Cmdr. Waddle, then said, 'I need to take a look.' And he took the periscope," Hall said.
The view from Greeneville's periscopes was projected onto screens around the submarine's control room, he said. Observers in the room saw no sign of a ship on the surface, he said.
"At that point he (Waddle) said 'OK,' and he brought the periscope down and we proceeded with the manuever," Hall said.
The maneuver brings the 360-foot (110-meter) submarine out of the water at a steep angle and with great force, its bow pointing sharply upward.
"Just as it was starting to come down, and you could feel the sensation of it coming down, there was a very loud noise and the entire submarine shuddered," Hall said. He said Waddle blurted out, "Jesus, what the hell was that?"
The collision occurred about 10 miles (16 kilometers) off Diamond Head, near Honolulu. The 180-foot (55-meter) Ehime Maru ship sank within minutes.
Rescuers saved 26 of the 35 aboard the Japanese ship but nine remain missing and are presumed dead.
Thoman said it was evident that the accident was serious.
"Once we saw the ship taking on water and the crew bringing things out, we knew it was going to be a devastating effect," he said.
The civilians' comments came as The Washington Post reported that the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet chief told senators that Waddle should have seen the 180-foot (55-meter) Ehime Maru before the Greeneville hit it last Friday.
"He should have seen the ship. It's hard to see how they missed it," Adm. Thomas Fargo told a closed-door congressional briefing Wednesday, the Post reported. The newspaper cited an unnamed participant in the session with the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Search could be called off Thursday
The collision is the subject of investigations by the Navy and the National Transportation Safety Board, and Waddle has been reassigned during the investigation. He could be court-martialed for criminal negligence if the investigation finds he did not follow proper procedures, Pentagon sources told CNN.
Meanwhile, Coast Guard officials said the effort to find survivors could end at any time Thursday after more than five days of fruitless searches.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Joseph McClelland said the search has been the most thorough the service has conducted.
"That patch of ocean was repeatedly searched, exhaustively, and with great care," McClelland said at a news conference Wednesday. He said 12 ships and 11 aircraft from both the Navy and Coast Guard covered 72 search areas, totaling 38,000 square kilometers.
McClelland said he was going to call off the search at nightfall Wednesday, but after discussions with the families of the missing and representatives from the Japanese government, he decided to keep it going into Thursday.
Those missing and feared dead include four 17-year-old students from the Uwajima Fisheries High School in southwestern Japan, two of their teachers and three crew members from the Ehime Maru. The ship was carrying the high school students on a field trip to learn about commercial fishing.
The U.S. and Japanese governments will make the final call on when the search will end, which would most likely be Thursday, he said. Japanese television reported the families were upset with the news, but McClelland said they took it well.
"They were very understanding and there was no disagreement to that," he said.
Once the rescue operation is over, the Navy will take over search and recovery operations, and will send an unmanned probe known as Scorpio II underwater at the site to determine the location of the ship and the feasibility of a recovery operation.
Japan upset over news of civilians
Most of the surviving crew of the Ehime Maru have returned home to Japan, although its captain, Hisao Onishi, remained in Hawaii.
Navy officials also acknowledged Wednesday that the Greeneville was nearly two miles outside a submarine test area marked on nautical charts when it surfaced beneath the fishing vessel. The Navy initially had said the submarine was within the 56-square-mile training area.
Lt. Cmdr. Conrad Chun, a Pacific Fleet spokesman, stressed Wednesday that the charts serve only as an advisory and submarines are not restricted to those areas.
The investigation is being followed with great interest in Japan, where news that civilians were at the submarine's controls prompted an outcry.
Japanese officials here said that Foreign Minister Yohei Kono called his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Colin Powell, to tell him that it was regrettable that Tokyo only learned about civilians being on the submarine -- from watching CNN -- instead of through official channels.
Government sources said the civilians were part of a group of 15 members of an organization that supports the USS Missouri Battleship Memorial in Hawaii. One guest was seated in the helm position, from which the submarine can be steered; another operated the ballast control, which controls the vessel's buoyancy.
Navy officials said it is routine to allow guests to experience the thrill of a rapid ascent known as an "emergency blow," while holding the steering wheel, but only under the close and direct supervision of a qualified helmsman.
The foreign ministry quoted Kono as saying that it would an "extremely grave situation" if the participation of the civilians led to the accident. Powell was quoted as saying in the 20-minute conversation that there was not yet any evidence of that.
Search to end for 9 missing from submarine collision
USS Missouri Memorial - WWII Battleship
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