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NAPLES, Italy — The commander and the former executive officer of the submarine USS Minneapolis-St. Paul received punitive letters of reprimand Tuesday, following a hearing on the fatal December incident in which two sailors were swept off the sub’s surface during bad weather, a Navy official said.

Rear Adm. Jeff Fowler, commander of Submarine Group 8, conducted five nonjudicial punishment hearings Tuesday related to the Dec. 29 incident and issued letters of reprimand for the top two officers, said Lt. Chris Servello, a spokesman with Naval Forces Europe/6th Fleet. Fowler dismissed charges against three other crewmembers: two officers and a chief petty officer, Servello said.

The sub’s commander, Cmdr. Edwin Ruff, took command of the Minneapolis-St. Paul in December 2004. Servello declined to name the former executive officer, citing privacy laws. Typically, information on nonjudicial punishment hearings is not released publicly. The former executive officer had been replaced because of a normal rotational cycle, not because of the incident.

“The decision made today was made in the best interest of crew safety and future mission success,” Servello said when asked why Fowler decided to keep Ruff as commander.

Four sailors were swept from the top of the submarine as it pulled out of port during bad weather in Plymouth Harbor, England. Senior Chief Petty Officer Thomas Higgins, 45, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Holtz, 30, were killed. Two other sailors were injured.

Preliminary investigation results indicate that “inclement weather and sea state played a role in the incident,” Servello said. The investigation has to be finalized and passed through the chain of command, which includes the commanders of Naval Forces Europe/6th Fleet and the Submarine Force.

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

The deaths of the Minneapolis-St. Paul sailors are the first such fatalities in six years force wide. During that same period, four other sailors who had fallen overboard from various subs were successfully rescued from the water.

This fatal incident, and a sub collision in the Strait of Hormuz 10 days later, sparked the Navy’s Submarine Force commander to call for an operational “stand-down” for all submarines, charging submarine commanders to “focus energy and intellect back onto the basics of submarine operations,” according to a statement from Vice Adm. Chuck Munns.

“It is clear that a common thread through recent problems has been errors conducting normal routine operations,” Munns wrote in Thursday’s order. “We are going back to basics, back to practice.”

Commanders have until Friday to submit reports on their safety review.

On Jan. 8, the fast attack submarine USS Newport News collided with a Japanese oil tanker in the narrow Strait of Hormuz.

The investigation is ongoing, Cmdr. Kevin Aandahl, with the Navy’s 5th Fleet, said Tuesday. However, a preliminary rundown of the investigation indicates that the oil tanker’s high speed created a sucking flow, known as the “venturi effect,” that made the sub rise and collide with the ship, Lt. Cmdr. Chris Loundermon, a Submarine Force spokesman, has said.

The Navy has 70 submarines in its force.


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