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RAF MILDENHALL, England — British police said Tuesday that safety lines played a role in the death of two U.S. sailors swept off the deck of the USS Minneapolis-St. Paul by fierce seas in Plymouth Harbor on Friday.

“It would look to be a contributing factor,” Devon and Cornwall Constabulary Sgt. Detective Richard Bailey said of the safety lines. “It’s an aspect of the inquiry.”

Bailey said the two sailors who survived the accident were either not attached to the vessel with safety lines or had lines that allowed them to drift from the nuclear-powered submarine.

The two sailors who died, identified Sunday as Senior Chief Petty Officer Thomas E. Higgins, 45, of Paducah, Ky., and Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael J. Holtz, 30, of Lakewood, Ohio, were tethered more closely to the sub, according to Bailey.

Navy spokesman Lt. Chris Servello said the Navy was declining to release details until its investigation was completed.

Servello said Commander Sub Group 8 would convene an administrative investigation conducted by a serving submarine captain.

Bailey confirmed the accident occurred while a British pilot who maneuvered the vessel through Plymouth Harbor was being transferred from the Los Angeles-class submarine to a smaller British Ministry of Defence ship to return to the Devonport Naval Base.

The submarine was at the edge of Plymouth Harbor where a mile-long break wall meets the open sea shortly before 1 p.m. on Friday when rough seas forced the four from the deck of the ship. Wind gusts were clocked near 50 mph and waves rose to 20 feet as the sub departed Plymouth Harbor following its brief tour in England. Bailey stressed that the weather was rough, but not what Plymouth Harbor officials considered extreme.

The four victims were plucked from the water by British personnel from escort vessels and by sailors aboard the sub. They were taken to Plymouth’s Derriford Hospital, where Higgins and Holtz were declared dead.

Ian Arrow, coroner for Southwest Devon and Plymouth, said the bodies of Higgins and Holtz remain at Derriford Hospital. His office is waiting for a report from the U.S. Navy before it is permitted to conduct an autopsy to determine the cause of death.

“Under the Visiting Forces Act, I am awaiting further clarification from the U.S. Navy and a report from them before we order any type of autopsy,” Arrow said.

Arrow said the U.S. Embassy in London was contacted Friday to assist in the repatriation of the victims. U.S. State Department officials could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

The two survivors, whom the Navy declined to identify due to the Privacy Act, spent Friday and Saturday night at HMS Drake Royal Naval Base before being transferred to RAF St. Mawgan, home to a U.S. Navy outpost, according to Bailey.

He said the two were interviewed over the weekend.

Bailey said his agency is investigating the incident to determine if criminal charges would be filed in connection with the deaths, but preliminary findings indicate the deaths were a tragic accident and not the result of a criminal act.

Bailey described Friday’s deaths as “a fairly unique incident” and that his office had conducted two investigations of incidents on ships in Plymouth Harbor in the past year, but none included the deaths of foreign troops.

The constabulary, the British Ministry of Defence and the U.S. Navy are conducting separate probes. The Norfolk, Va.-based submarine was sailing under the command of the Navy’s 6th Fleet during its weeklong tour of Devonport, which regularly hosts foreign vessels as part of NATO military events.

Stars and Stripes reporter Sandra Jontz contributed to this report.


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