HONOLULU -- Civilian visitors were seated at two of the three main controls of a Navy submarine when it surfaced beneath a Japanese fishing boat off Hawaii last Friday, Navy officials said Tuesday.
One of the civilians was at the helmsman position, which controls the steering of the submarine through its rudder and bow planes -- two stubby, adjustable wings near the nose of the ship -- while the other was at the ballast controls, which help guide the sub's rise and fall in the water, an official said.
Navy officials insisted that the presence of the civilians at the controls in no way contributed to the accident. They said the visitors constantly were supervised, with the "watchstanders" who normally operate the equipment hovering behind them.
Even so, the disclosure that civilians had their hands on the controls raises new questions about how the incident occurred, as well as about the Navy's slow disclosure of information. Submariners speculated that it is possible that the civilians impeded communications between supervisors on the ship or distracted commanders from ensuring that the surface had been adequately surveyed before the sub began its rapid ascent.
"Does it look bad?" Rear Adm. Stephen Pietropaoli, the Navy's chief spokesman, said Tuesday night. "Only to people who don't understand how submarines work."
Another Navy officer, who asked not to be identified, said, "It doesn't change what happened. It is routine to have a guest at the controls with a helmsman standing next to him."
Even so, this officer added, "The problem is, why didn't the Navy put this out three days ago?"
Pietropaoli said the Navy did not want to release information piecemeal and wanted to gather all the facts in its investigation before releasing any explanations of what happened or how.
Nor would the Navy release the names of the civilians, citing privacy concerns. "We don't think a person surrenders their right to privacy by riding on a submarine," said Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman.
The Japanese boat, the Ehime Maru, sank almost immediately. Some 26 of the people aboard it were rescued, but nine remain missing and hopes of their being found are dwindling. But a U.S. Coast Guard official said he expected the search for the missing to continue as long as the Japanese government wanted it to go on.
All told, there were 16 civilian visitors on board the USS Greeneville at the time of the collision, an unusually high number of guests to have aboard, officials said.
The accident occurred when the submarine was practicing an "emergency main ballast blow," in which the 6,900-ton boat pops to the surface like a cork. The Navy has offered no explanation of why the crew of the Greeneville failed to detect that it was surfacing directly below a 174-foot fishing vessel.
Some Navy submariners have speculated that the Greeneville may have spent too long submerged after checking the surface with its periscope. But a Navy official said Tuesday that the standard time for checking the surface, submerging and then performing a main-ballast blow is 10 to 15 minutes. "They were well within that window," he said.
James H. Patton Jr, a retired commander of the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Pargo, said it would not be uncommon to place a guest in one of the watch station seats to experience what it feels like to be at the controls of submarine during maneuvers. But Patton stressed that the guest "is not in a position to actually do anything. They really can't do much damage just sitting there."
Patton said the guest would have the ersatz experience of, "Wow, I'm driving a nuclear sub."
He speculated that a guest could even be sitting at a station whose controls had been switched to another seat. "It's not like the Navy took any chances to let a VIP sit there and watch things go."
Another former submarine skipper said he was not alarmed by the disclosure that civilians had their hands on the controls during the ascent. "The controls don't have much effect when you're doing an emergency blow," he said.
But he added that the presence of the civilians could have distracted Cmdr. Scott Waddle, the Greeneville's captain. "I would guess that what they did was preoccupy the skipper," resulting in "an accretion of errors," he said.
Waddle was relieved of duty after the accident.
According to submariners, the three main positions control the ballast, the bow planes and the stern planes. "A civilian wouldn't know what to do," the Ehime Maru's first mate, Ryoichi Miya, told reporters in Honolulu.
"I don't know if the emergency surfacing was a drill or what, but it's absolutely unforgivable if a civilian was operating it," he said, his voice rising in anger.
In Washington, President Bush said he telephoned Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to personally apologize for the sinking of the Ehime Maru. Bush had been criticized in Japan for not speaking directly with the Japanese leader.
The Navy Tuesday prepared to take two unmanned submersibles to the crash site to begin hunting for the wreck of the Ehime Maru. The Navy hopes to use the vehicles to pinpoint the sunken ship, believed to rest some 1,800 feet below the surface, and to take sonar images of the vessel and the surrounding debris field.
The two submersibles, the Scorpion II and the Deep Drone, are both too large to enter the sunken ship's interior, but the Navy hopes to get a good look at the Ehime Maru's hull, which will help investigators learn exactly where the submarine struck the Japanese vessel.
It is also possible that the vehicles could locate human remains at the sea floor. The Japanese government and relatives of the missing have been asking that such a retrieval be attempted.
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