Searching The Depths

Heads bowed, they lined up before the cameras, putting faces on a trans-Pacific tragedy. One grief-stricken man, whose 17-year-old son, Yusuke Terata, was among the nine missing aboard the sunken training vessel Ehime Maru, told a news conference at the University of Hawaii last Friday: "My son wanted world peace. Why did he have to die because of this nuclear sub?" Speaking in Japanese, the father angrily addressed Cmdr. Scott Waddle, the captain of the USS Greeneville. Waddle "should get on his knees and bow his head to the floor as a way of apology," he said.

The U.S. Navy continues to be the focus of Japanese outrage over the sub accident, which occurred Feb. 9 near Oahu, Hawaii, when the Greeneville surfaced directly underneath the Ehime Maru, ripping it apart. But ultimately, the most senior official to take the fall may be the prime minister of Japan, Yoshiro Mori. He was savaged by the Japanese press last week for his response to the accident. Informed of it while golfing at a country club, Mori opted to stay on the links for another hour and a half. Asked later why he'd dallied as news of the tragedy was being broadcast, he replied, "How could I carry a TV set on the golf course?"

Power brokers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have been looking for an excuse to sack Mori, who has made a series of verbal blunders. His approval rating is among the lowest of any postwar prime minister. Now the betting is that the fallout from the sub collision will topple his government within months. "The ship called Japan is in peril of foundering with Captain Mori at the helm," said an editorial in the Asahi newspaper.

Japanese sentiment toward the United States isn't much more forgiving, despite apologies from President George W. Bush. A preliminary Navy investigation found that the Greeneville's crew followed proper procedures in checking for vessels above the surface. The probe also determined that all systems aboard the sub were functioning properly. But that didn't explain the central mystery: why the Greeneville failed to observe the Ehime Maru before the sub surfaced. On Saturday the Navy announced that Waddle, his executive officer and the officer on deck during the incident face a Court of Inquiry, which could mean a court martial. Speculation continued that the ship's officers were somehow distracted by the presence of the 16 civilian observers onboard, at least two of whom were seated at key watch stations during the surfacing exercise. The National Transportation Safety Board believes the Navy dragged its feet in revealing key facts about the civilians' presence, sources close to the agency told NEWSWEEK. They said the NTSB learned within hours of the accident that civilians were aboard the Greeneville, but the Navy didn't disclose that they were in the submarine's control room--and possibly at the controls--until three or four days after the accident.

President Bush said late last week that the Pentagon should review its policy on allowing civilians to participate in military exercises. And the Navy has, for the moment, decided to bar civilians from the controls of submarines. The possibility of some closure lay ahead: on Saturday the U.S. Navy announced it had located the Ehime Maru in 2,000 feet of water. But it was unclear whether the ship would be raised, and whether the anguished relatives of the missing would ever see the bodies of their loved ones again.