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CNN Today

Greeneville Disaster Reminds Many of USS Houston

Aired February 15, 2001 - 4:07 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: The sinking of the Japanese fishing boat by the Greeneville is not the first time a Navy sub has been involved in a deadly collision.

CNN's Frank Buckley with that story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FRANK BUCKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The USS Houston was at periscope depth in the busy San Pedro Channel off Long Beach, California. Its mission later that day: to serve in the filming of the movie, "The Hunt for Red October." But before filming began, in predawn darkness, one of Houston's antennas snagged the tow line of the tugboat towing these two barges through the water. Crewman aboard the tug, the Barcona -- similar to these -- felt the vessel suddenly slow. Then, inexplicably to them, it began going under.

RALPH LARISON, OWNER, CONNOLLY-PACIFIC COMPANY: The boat was dragged down backwards, filled with water and sank.

BUCKLEY: It was Ralph Larison's tug that went down. Three of his crewmen were aboard the Barcona on June 14, 1989. One of the crewmen died.

The USS Greeneville incident near Hawaii, prompting Larison to wonder if the Navy shouldn't now consider additional safety precautions when surfacing in areas where civilian marine traffic is present.

LARISON: If they don't have a procedure for coming to the surface under these circumstances, I think they should probably consider one.

BUCKLEY: In fact, the National Transportation Safety Board suggested an additional procedure in the wake of the Houston incident. This report issued in 1990, recommending to the U.S. Navy that it require that "sonar gear be used in the active mode on all submarines operating in U.S. coastal waters that are known to have high volumes of commercial and recreational traffic before ascending to periscope depth."

The Navy, responding in its own review, that the "use of search sonar would not have been of assistance. No change in periscope depth procedures is deemed necessary." Prompting the then chairman of the NTSB to write, in a letter to the chief of naval operations: "It is regrettable that the Department of Navy does not plan to act positively on any of the safety recommendations suggested by the Safety Board."

Vice chair during the Houston investigation, Susan Coughlin, saying the recommendations should now be reconsidered.

SUSAN COUGHLIN, FORMER NTSB BOARD MEMBER: I think it really is a question that the NTSB is going to be looking at and, hopefully, the Navy will be, too, so that they have, perhaps, a fresh look at a new situation that might change their view about some of the recommendations that have been made in the past.

BUCKLEY: The Navy says, however, the two incidents are dissimilar: the Greeneville rising rapidly in an emergency blow, the Houston already running near the surface at the time of its collision. Also, they say, active sonar would not have necessarily helped, given a thermal layer in the water that could have blocked sound waves.

REAR ADM. CRAIG QUIGLEY, U.S. NAVY: Any use of an active sonar at that -- with that geometry in place of a thermal layer would cause your active sonar to not give you the return -- it would basically be blocked.

BUCKLEY: Still, at least one former U.S. Navy captain says the Greeneville could have used active sonar as at least one additional tool to ensure safety.

ALEX FRASER, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: And in an environment where it is not necessary to maintain the stealth of the submarine, you ought to use every available safety measure that you have onboard the ship.

BUCKLEY (on camera): NTSB investigators will work to determine if active sonar would have made a difference in the Greeneville incident. As part of their probe, they'll re-examine the recommendations made in the wake of another submarine collision that occurred here more than a decade before.

Frank Buckley, CNN, Los Angeles.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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