Greeneville sonar technician gets testimonial immunity
HONOLULU, Hawaii (CNN) -- The court of inquiry investigating the collision of the USS Greeneville with a Japanese research vessel granted testimonial immunity Friday to the sub crewmember who was tracking ships in the area.
In another development, sources close to the court of inquiry tell CNN the Navy plans to call before the court a selected number of civilians who were aboard the nuclear submarine at the time of the accident, including some who have spoken to the news media.
The Navy has not decided exactly how many civilians they will call. The court of inquiry would like the civilians to testify voluntary, but is prepared to issue subpoenas, they said.
The USS Greeneville's fire control technician, FT1 Patrick Thomas Seacrest, will testify Monday as a result of the testimonial immunity deal. Thursday, he had said he would not give testimony before the court.
Testimonial immunity prevents testimony given by the witness in the court of inquiry from being used against him in a court martial proceeding.
Nine people aboard the Ehime Maru, including four Japanese high school students, are missing and presumed dead from the February 9 accident. Another 26 people were rescued.
Sonar information not shared
Seacrest is not among the three sub officers at the heart of the court of inquiry, but his actions have come under scrutiny in testimony before the investigative panel of three Navy admirals and a non-voting Japanese admiral.
Seacrest told Navy investigators in their preliminary investigation that he tracked the Ehime Maru to within 2,500 yards of the sub, but did not tell commanding officers because of 16 civilians aboard who posed a distraction.
Seacrest was not the chief fire control technician of the Greeneville. Both the chief sonar operator and chief fire control technician were not aboard the U.S. submarine when it slammed into the Japanese vessel.
Last week, Rear Adm. Charles Griffiths, who led the Navy's initial probe, cited a lack of sonar operators as a contributing factor in the crash.
Griffiths said the sub's skipper, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, 41, and Lt. j.g. Michael Coen, 26, the Greeneville's officer of the deck, verbally reported seeing no close ships when they performed periscope checks before the emergency surfacing drill that resulted in the collision.
Griffiths said the fire control technician should have questioned those assessments.
"At the very least, the (fire control technician) of the watch should have spoken up and said, 'That may be, but I think we have a close guy here," Griffiths said. "That was a key piece of information that they were not provided.
Waddle, Coen and another officer aboard the Greeneville, Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Pfeifer, 38, could face courts-martial as a result of the court of inquiry.
Waddle and Coen have said they will only testify before the court of inquiry if they are given testimonial immunity. The Navy has not yet decided whether to grant their requests.
More time may have prevented collision
Earlier Friday, the court heard more testimony from crewmembers aboard the Greeneville.
Petty Officer 1st Class Edward McGiboney, a sonar supervisor, said he believed the contacts they were picking up were some distance away and posed no hazard to the submarine.
He said that when the collision happened, the sub was "angling up and then tilted downward a little bit, which didn't make sense."
"I heard a first boom. When we finished coming up all the way, there was a second boom," McGiboney said. "At that point, I thought we hit something sitting still in the water."
An admiral on the panel asked, "You were totally surprised?"
"Yes, sir," he responded.
Under cross examination, McGiboney acknowledged more time on the sonar search could have prevented the accident.
"I don't think we had enough time. If we had a little more time on the first leg, looking back it would have been better," he said.
Later in the day, Lt. Cmdr. Dave Werner, a public affairs officer who coordinated the trip for civilians, said he was first informed of the trip on January 23 by the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, Adm. Albert Konetzni.
Konetzni told him that retired Adm. Richard Mackey, the former Pacific Fleet commander, had "guests sounding like the kind we want," according to Werner.
But Konetzni told Werner "Don't break China," meaning don't rearrange schedules to make the civilian trip happen.
Werner made clear in his testimony that the sole purpose of the Greeneville's trip was to "support the DV (Distinguished Visitor) program."
The admirals on the court of inquiry seemed agitated by that notion, prompting Vice Adm. John Nathman to say he "never got a carrier under way for a one-day Distinguished Visitor embark."
On the day before the accident, Werner said he met in his office with Waddle to discuss the VIP guests. During that meeting, Werner testified that Waddle seemed disappointed to learn Konetzni would not make the trip.
He added that Mackey was supposed to go on the voyage, but backed out the day before because "something had come up."
On the next day, before the submarine left on its fateful journey, Werner said he e-mailed Capt. Robert Brandhuber, the high ranking officer who was to escort the civilians, informing him he didn't think the trip was worth his time.
"In my estimation, these are not the most distinguished of visitors," Werner said he wrote.
Brandhuber, who has testified before the court of inquiry, was the highest ranking official on the submarine.
At the end of Friday's court session, Waddle met privately with four more Japanese family members of those still missing and apologized for the accident. The relatives arrived Friday.
Waddle has previously sent letters of apology to families of the victims and apologized in person to some of them.
Sub crew members said pace fast but not dangerous
U.S. Coast Guard
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