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Crewman Lost as Sub Sinks Tug Off Coast

June 15, 1989|SCOTT HARRIS and JAMES RAINEY | Times Staff Writers

A nuclear-powered Navy submarine involved in the making of the film "The Hunt for Red October" accidentally sank a tugboat early Wednesday when it snagged the vessel's tow cable and yanked the boat under water about 10 miles southwest of Long Beach.

One crewman of the tugboat Barcona was missing and presumed dead late Wednesday, despite a daylong search that involved four Coast Guard vessels, two helicopters and the Houston--the submarine involved in the accident.

The search was suspended shortly before nightfall.

Two other Barcona crewmen jumped into the fog-shrouded sea and managed to swim to one of two empty barges that their tug had been towing. Later, the survivors told investigators about their terror when their 97-ton, 73-foot tug was jolted backward and sunk by what seemed an unknown, invisible force.

Film Work

The Houston, a fast-attack submarine based in San Diego, this week was to assist in the filming of "The Hunt for Red October," a tale of a Soviet submarine commander's defection to the United States, said Lt. Sonja Hedley, a spokeswoman for the Naval Submarine Base at San Diego.

"But this incident had absolutely nothing to do with Hollywood or with the filming," Hedley emphasized.

Navy officials said the submarine was not damaged.

Hours after the accident, a foul odor began to invade the beaches of Huntington Beach and as far inland as Garden Grove. Huntington Beach lifeguards and local fire officials said they suspect that the smell is related to the sunken tug.

But Coast Guard officials said that is not the likely cause.

"It's kind of a paint thinner, diesel fuel kind of smell," said Matt Karl, a Huntington Beach lifeguard. "We can smell it all up and down the beach, all three miles of it. But I haven't seen any kind of an oil slick."

Huntington Beach fire officials are advising people reporting the fumes to stay indoors.

The movie's shooting had been planned for later in the day. But there were no actors or film crew present when the accident occurred.

Hedley said the Houston was submerged when it caught the tow cable linking the Barcona with the barges about 4:45 a.m. Navy officials refused to disclose the submarine's depth, speed, whether it was in descent when the accident occurred or whether its sensors should have detected the Barcona's 1,000-foot steel cable.

Hedley said that the accident will be investigated by the Coast Guard and Navy and that no further details will be released until the investigation is completed.

The sinking was described in an interview by Cmdr. Donald Parsons, chief of investigations for the Coast Guard's Los Angeles-Long Beach group, and in a press conference by Ralph Larison, president of Connolly-Pacific Co., a marine construction firm that owns the tugboat and employs the crew.

Both had spoken with the survivors, Barcona captain Mike Link, 37, of Norco and deckhand Daniel Rodriguez, 37, of San Pedro.

Bryan Ballanger, 32, married and the father of two children, was last seen going below deck to check on the Barcona's engines, moments before the boat went under in 2,500-foot-deep waters.

Ballanger was piloting the vessel through a thick fog at about six knots, while Link and Rodriguez were asleep below deck, when the accident occurred.

Sleeping in shifts is a standard practice, Larison said. Ballanger is a licensed tugboat pilot.

"They were jerked backward with such a force that water came over the stern of the boat, and the rear windows were knocked out," Larison said.

The tug crew members estimated that they were being towed backward at about 10 knots.

Link went above deck to talk with Ballanger, Parsons said, but neither could understand what was happening to their boat. The pilot then decided to check the engine room.

"The tug was pulled down and sank," Parsons said. "It happened in less than one minute."

As the tug started sinking fast, Rodriguez jumped overboard; Link followed moments later.

"They got off the boat and came to the surface, and their boat was gone," Parsons said.

Link and Rodriguez were in the ocean about 15 minutes before reaching one of the empty barges cut adrift by the submarine. They pulled themselves onto a barge and waited about two hours before being picked up by a passing fishing boat.

"They're in good shape physically but real shook up mentally," Larison said.

Link, through his wife, declined to comment on the incident.

Reached at his San Pedro home, Rodriguez said he had been told by his employers not to talk about the incident.

"It was just a dream you couldn't wake up out of," said Rodriguez, 37. "I'm OK. . . . I'm going to go walk on the beach."

Connolly-Pacific is a builder of marinas and underwater reefs. The Barcona was en route from its home port of Long Beach to the eastern tip of Santa Catalina Island, where the barges were to be filled with rock from an island quarry for the 147-acre expansion of Pier J in Long Beach Harbor.

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