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RAF MILDENHALL, England — An expert in naval affairs said the submarine accident that killed two American sailors in Plymouth Harbor late last week may have been the result of “tragic coincidences.”

“It sounds like the water was just high enough and the waves were just right and the men banged their heads on their way down and drowned,” said Nick Brown, editor of Jane’s Navy International. “It sounds like a set of tragic coincidences more than anything.”

Senior Chief Petty Officer Thomas E. Higgins, 45, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael J. Holtz, 30, were killed after they were washed from the deck of the USS Minneapolis-St. Paul in a fierce winter storm in Plymouth Harbor on Dec. 29.

Two other sailors, whom the Navy has declined to name because of privacy laws, suffered minor injuries after also being swept from the deck of the nuclear-powered submarine.

Tuesday, a British police official said Higgins and Holtz were tethered close to the submarine while the two surviving sailors were either not connected by safety ropes or had lines long enough that allowed them to float away from the vessel.

It is standard practice to have topside sailors both tethered to the submarine as well as wearing safety vests, said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Loundermon, a spokesman for Commander, Submarine Force, in Norfolk, Va.

When a submarine pulls in or out of a port, a certain number of sailors must be topside to perform what the Navy calls “maneuvering watch,” and includes jobs such as reeling in lines, securing a tugboat, or transferring a pilot, the sailor responsible for guiding in the vessel, Loundermon said. On a surface ship, a similar procedure is called “sea and anchor detail.”

The process and the number of sailors required to do the job can vary, depending on factors such as sea and weather conditions, a familiarity with a port, or threat conditions, he said.

In the case of the Minneapolis-St. Paul, the four U.S. sailors were washed off the sub while the British harbor pilot was being transferred from the Los Angeles-class submarine to a British Ministry of Defence escort vessel, according to Devon and Cornwall Sgt. Detective Richard Bailey.

Brown said it’s standard practice to use a harness and a locking device — much like a mountain-climbing carabiner — to secure sailors to the deck of ships during such a transfer to allow for a safe level of freedom of motion.

The London-based editor said sailors attached to ships and subs by safety lines often fall from the vessels and are safely recovered.

“Slips, trips and blunders are the bread and butter of health and safety problems at sea,” Brown said. “If the two gentlemen had not died, we would probably not have heard a word of it.”

Brown said he has not heard of any similar accident in the past five to six years, but that the risk of being swept from the deck has always been a pitfall of submarine service.

“I’m sure this kind of thing has happened on submarines if you go back far enough,” he said.

The U.S. Navy has assigned a captain from Sub Group 8 to convene an administrative investigation while the MOD is conducting a separate probe into the fatal accident.

Higgins’ sister, Judith Higgins Scheffler, told The Paducah Sun in Kentucky that Higgins was dedicated to the Navy and loved his job.

Family members wanted Higgins to retire after 20 years in the military, but the 2001 terrorist attacks prompted him to stay.

Higgins enlisted in the Navy at age 20. He lived in Norfolk with his wife, Tina Higgins, and 16-year-old son, Christopher.

Scheffler said Higgins was smart, humble and sweet — and always carried a smile on his face. Higgins enjoyed taking care of the sailors on the submarine, Scheffler said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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