Ken Wyatt recalls crawling through the fast-attack submarine USS Greeneville two years ago as part of his tour with 15 other civilians.
He remembers the mess, the bridge and the torpedo room, and lunch with the skipper, then-Cmdr. Scott Waddle. And he remembers the respect he felt for the captain and crew after spending a morning in the cramped spaces where they work, eat and live.
“It showed the discipline, the hardship. It was inspiring,” Wyatt recalled recently from his Colorado home. “It made me feel like my tax money was being well-utilized.”
Over the next two years, U.S. taxpayers ultimately would spend $16.5 million to compensate the victims and families of the Ehime Maru, a Japanese fishing trawler that happened into the Greenville’s path of ascent the morning Wyatt was aboard.
Nine people died Feb. 9, 2001, including five teenagers, when the Japanese fisheries school trawler sank.
Federal and Navy investigators tried over the next several weeks to find out how a sub could surface under a ship. Media reports in the United States and Japan questioned whether civilians in the control room were to blame.
“Even though there were a lot of people in the control room, no one was in the way. No one was jostling, talking or distracting,” Wyatt said. “Because we were told not to.”
Fault for the accident was ultimately placed on “a series and combination of individual negligence(s)” among members of the crew, according to the Navy Court of Inquiry report.
But the investigation found that the presence of civilians “indirectly affected the performance of key watchstanders in the control room” and “hindered the normal flow of contact information among members of Greeneville’s contact management team.”
Waddle said the visitors aboard were not to blame.
“On that day, the guests had no impact on the performance of my crew,” Waddle said Friday. “I am a supporter of the DV program. The responsibility rested on me as captain to make sure they were not in the way.”
Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, U.S. Pacific fleet commander, told reporters after the investigation closed: “The report is very clear that the civilians on board were not directly the cause of this collision. We’ve had a distinguished-visitors program, we’ve been embarking civilians in the Navy for 50 years. I think it’s important to our nation. We can do this safely and will do it safely.”
Distinguished-visitors programs bring civilians aboard ships, into helicopters and beside servicemembers to show off the equipment, training and readiness of the U.S. armed forces. American and foreign businesspeople, politicians, celebrities and friends to the military are usually invited.
It can reward contributors to military causes or assuage local tensions. Wyatt’s visit was organized by a friend, a contributor and fund-raiser for the Battleship Missouri Memorial in Pearl Harbor.
In 1999, officials at Yokota Air Base in Japan used a DV tour to help apologize to a Japanese man after a sandbag was dropped on his house during a training mission.
Each service crafts its community-relations programs under an overall Department of Defense guideline. After the Greeneville accident, the DOD and individual services reviewed their rules and rewrote some for clarification.
“We will not shut down the public’s access to what we do,” said Army Lt. Col. Archie Davis, a community-relations spokesman at the Pentagon. “We continue to grant access to our military facilities, equipment and our dedicated men and women in uniform. We just added safety measures.”
Commands must examine risks before approving visits and tours. And exercises must be conducted for training value, Davis said.
“The Air Force doesn’t really have anything set in stone for its visitors or guests,” said Lt. David Faggard, a Pacific Air Forces spokesman. “It really is the community-relations person’s responsibility to tailor his or her own program.”
“It just depends on who they are,” said Army Lt. Col. Dave Nadeau, a protocol official with the 8th Army in South Korea. “The individual unit that has the equipment approves or not.”
The Army considers only high-ranking civilians, such as influential politicians and statesmen, to be DVs, Nadeau said.
The Navy has several civilian-visit programs to showcase a ship or sub, including DVs. Generally, a visitor’s treatment has less to do with who they are and more about what’s available on board.
“The idea is to provide a greater view of what our sailors do at sea,” said Lt. Marc Boyd, a spokesman for 7th Fleet in the Pacific, “thus enabling civilian leaders and opinion-makers to have a better idea of the Navy’s capabilities.”
Naval DV programs received the most attention after the Greeneville accident. In response, the Navy reviewed three items in its policy: how visitors are selected, the procedures that ensure visits are conducted only as part of regularly scheduled exercises and the guidelines that bar operation of equipment by civilians and guests.
The service found its existing rules “generally provide the appropriate level of guidance for the successful execution of embarks,” Boyd said. “Minor changes were required to eliminate dated information, inconsistencies and improve clarity.”
Navy officials believe DV programs are safe as long as the Navy guidelines and rules are followed to the letter.
“We will prevent accidents of this nature by respecting the importance of our responsibilities,” Adm. Fargo said after the investigation. “And the value of well-honed and time-tested operating procedures.”
The court of inquiry cited several instances aboard the Greeneville that fateful day when standard operating procedures were not followed, helping to cause the deadly collision. Concerns were not voiced and procedures rushed. But the Navy ruled the visitors were not to blame.
He added, however, that two years ago the Navy’s rules about DV trips were not quite clear.
“The measures in place were not necessarily as effective in determining the legitimacy of those invited,” he said.
But overall, he said he supports the program for its positive influences.
The families of two of the victims from the Ehime Maru believe that the presence of civilians did contribute to the accident, by creating a chaotic setting.
According to their attorney, Makoto Toyoda, the two families are pressing the Navy to more carefully construct and spell out DV policies to prevent the same environment from occurring and causing a future accident.
“They didn’t present preventative measures on paper that are easy to understand for nonprofessionals,” Toyoda said.
On Feb. 9, 2001, at 1:40 p.m., the Pearl Harbor-based USS Greeneville fast-attack nuclear submarine, carrying 106 crew and 16 civilian visitors, surfaces to periscope depth for 1½ minutes, nine miles south of Diamond Head, Oahu, Hawaii.
The ship’s commander and other personnel, along with several of the civilians aboard, look through the periscope and see open seas in all directions.
Ken Wyatt of Colorado, one of 16 distinguished visitors, is looking through the periscope at open seas before the final drill — an emergency drill that would take the sub down 400 feet in two minutes then with the push of a button, back up to surface in half the time.
Three minutes later, he feels a gentle tremble when the rising sub rams into the fishing trawler. “All I felt was a slight shudder go through the ship,” Wyatt told Stars and Stripes last week. “You wouldn’t know we hit something.”
In fact, the sub breaches the hull of the 190-foot, 500-ton Ehime Maru, a Japanese fisheries school training ship traveling 11 knots with 35 teachers and students on board. After impact, the Ehime Maru sinks within 10 minutes in 1,800 feet of water.
Nine people, including four students, two teachers and three crewmembers, die. The remaining 26 are rescued at sea.
After the accident, the U.S. government promises to salvage the sunken ship and retrieve the bodies of the dead.
After nine months and more than $60 million, the ship is brought to the surface and the remains of all but one of the deceased are recovered through 300 hours of dives.
In November 2001, the ship is towed several miles and dropped to its final resting place in 6,000 feet of water.
A memorial is built in Honolulu, where people can see the crash site and the ship’s final resting place.
The USS Greeneville was commissioned Feb. 16, 1996, at Norfolk Naval Base and moved to Pearl Harbor in April 1997.
Repairs to the Greeneville after the Ehime Maru accident, including dry dock, cost $200 million.
Since the incident, the USS Greeneville has been involved in two other accidents: It briefly ran aground off Saipan in August 2001 and bumped a U.S. naval vessel off the coast of Oman in January 2002.
— Sources: NTSB, U.S. Navy, Naval Court of Inquiry