A technician who plots sonar
signals manually says that at
one point he had to interrupt
By Janine Tully
A crew member of the nuclear attack submarine USS Greeneville, who was supposed to track surface ships before the collision with the Ehime Maru occurred, said civilians aboard may have distracted him.
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John Hammerschmidt, lead investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said last night that a fire control technician who plots sonar signals manually was not able to perform his duties at one point because civilians aboard the ship were in his way.
"He was not able to continue the plotting," he said.
Hammerschmidt said he did not know how critical the interruption was to the accident. The crewman was responsible for taking information from sonar operators and plotting the position of the Greeneville and nearby vessels on a chart.
About one hour before the collision, Greenville made contact through sonar with the Ehime Maru fishing vessel.
At 12:32 p.m. the nuclear submarine made passive sonar contact with the fishing vessel, Hammerschmidt said. What happened between then and the time of the accident at 1:43 p.m. is not known, he said yesterday during an NTSB briefing at the Marriott Waikiki Hotel.
He said the Navy designated the contact as Sierra 13, meaning it was the 13th ship recorded by sonar operators on that trip. The Navy has confirmed that the boat was the Ehime Maru, after reconstructing the trajectory of the vessel.
Radar data from the U.S. Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration also tracked the path of the Ehime Maru and recorded the time of collision at 1:43 p.m., Hammerschmidt said.
He said the data correspond with what survivors of the Ehime Maru told investigators, which is that the ship was traveling at 11 knots, at 166 degrees, southeast of Honolulu.
Hammerschmidt made several other disclosures during the briefing.
He noted that the sonar system was not staffed by two qualified sonar operators as required. "One was a trainee," he said. "The trainee was under the observation of a qualified operator."
He also pointed out that two pieces of equipment were not operating on the day of the accident: a towed array sonar system, located behind the submarine, and sonar repeaters, which allow the officer of the deck in the control room to see what is on the sonar screen.
"We don't know how significant this is," he said, referring to the sonar repeaters, which were broken.
Since arriving in Honolulu last week, the NTSB has interviewed 35 people, including 19 crewmen and 16 civilians.
Civilians told the NTSB that there was "no talking and no one was moving around" before the emergency ballast blow that shot the submarine out of the water, ramming the Ehime Maru.
Twenty-six men survived the impact; nine are presumed dead.
Hammerschmidt said the submarine's officer of the deck made several 360-degree sweeps with the periscope to check if there were any boats in the area.
Several of the guests also looked through the periscope, he said. Except for one, the civilians reported never seeing a ship.
One woman, though, said she saw a vessel. But later, when she saw a video display of the Ehime Maru, she said it did not look like the vessel she had seen earlier.
Hammerschmidt confirmed that two guests were at the controls during the emergency ballast blow. One pushed the ballast control lever, under close supervision, and another was at the helm, also supervised. A third guest helped blow the horn, signaling the start of the surfacing operation.
Moments later, the guests reported hearing a loud noise and felt the submarine shudder.
Then they heard Cmdr. Scott Waddle cry out, "What the hell was that?"
The guests were told to leave the control room and assemble in the crew's mess room. There they got a view of the Ehime Maru on the video display as it sank. "It was floating low in the water," they said.
The guests were again moved to the torpedo room, where they stayed until the next morning, when they returned to Pearl Harbor.
Hammerschmidt said the NTSB expects to return to Washington, D.C., by the end of the week. He said investigators will continue to analyze the Navy's data.