Disaster At Sea

Crew members of the Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru had just finished lunch when they felt a jolt, then two explosions. Plunged into darkness, they scrambled on deck as the water rushed in and their 191-foot ship began to founder. As they leaped into the choppy seas off the Hawaiian island of Oahu, the survivors saw a very strange sight: the massive black hull of an American submarine, breaking the surface right before them.

The crew of that sub, the USS Greeneville, carrying cruise missiles and heading home to Pearl Harbor after routine operations, will have some explaining to do. Nine people--three crew members, four high-school students on board to learn deep-sea fishing and two teachers--were missing in the collision between the sub and the fishing boat, their fates still unknown Saturday evening.

How did it happen? The fishing boat was in an area marked on charts as a channel used by American submarines. As a sub surfaces, its sonar, an acoustical listening device, searches for vessels while lookouts use a periscope to sweep around the horizon. If the weather is bad, the sub is supposed to use radar. Navy officials have said the sub was practicing an emergency surfacing maneuver that may have put it on course to crash into the boat. Investigators will look for both mechanical failure and human error. One theory: the sub's sonar did not hear the fishing boat because the smaller craft's engines were off, and the sub surfaced too rapidly to make effective use of its periscope.

A massive rescue effort--three helicopters and two Navy vessels--plucked 26 victims out of the water as they floated in life rafts just nine miles south of Diamond Head. A few of the survivors complained of diesel fuel in their eyes and one had broken his collarbone. Crew members of the submarine threw life rings and rafts to the swimmers. The accident was highly unusual, though not unprecedented. In 1981 the USS George Washington, a ballistic-missile sub, hit a 23,000-ton Japanese merchant ship, the Nissho Maru, off the southern coast of Japan. The ship sank and two crew members were killed.

The Greeneville, a Los Angeles-class attack sub that was christened by Tipper Gore, wife of the former vice president, in 1994, was only mildly damaged in last week's collision and none of the sub's crew of 130 was injured. The career of the sub's captain, 1981 Annapolis grad Cmdr. Scott Waddle, may, however, be in jeopardy. Last July the amphibious troop carrier USS Denver collided with the Yukon, a refueler, 180 miles west of Oahu. No one was injured, but the captain of the Denver was relieved of his command. The accident could also further strain relations between Japan and the U.S. military. Last month a Marine on Okinawa was arrested for lifting the skirt of a schoolgirl for a photograph. The Marine commander in Japan was dismissive of protesters in an e-mail that leaked out--and was forced to apologize to local authorities. After the Greeneville incident, there may be more apologies to come from America.