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For Them, 'The Hunt' Left Tragedy : Fatal accident: A submarine on hand for filming of a movie sank their tug. The movie's release has reawakened the horror for the survivors.

March 03, 1990|SHERYL STOLBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Dan Rodriguez, the sea was a fabulous escape.

"The ocean is different," he says. "You go out there, you were always breathing that sea breeze. Things are clearer. You could see the stars at night, different cloud formations, the wildlife, herds of sea lions. It's a different world."

It's a world, however, that is now shut off to Rodriguez.

The 27-year-old San Pedro resident, who has worked around the waterfront since he was a teen-ager, is one of two crew members who survived the sinking of the tugboat Barcona last June. The tug went down off the coast of Long Beach when a nuclear-powered Navy submarine--on hand for the filming of "The Hunt for Red October"--snagged a cable from the vessel and yanked it under water, drowning the vessel's pilot.

The movie, which is about a Soviet submarine commander's defection to the United States, opened in Los Angeles and theaters across the country Friday. But there are three people, at least, who are not rushing to the theater doors: Mike Link, the tugboat's captain and other surviving crew member; Janet Ballanger, the widow of pilot Bryan Ballanger, and Rodriguez.

Instead, they are trying to reorder their lives. Janet Ballanger, who declines to talk to the press, is struggling to raise two young children alone, according to her lawyer, who described her as "a strong woman who had dealt with it, I suppose, as well as anybody could."

Rodriguez, whose knees were injured in the accident, is in school learning to repair air conditioners and refrigerators. He says his mind was affected as well: "It's a pretty heavy load I'm carrying."

Link, a 38-year-old father of three, says he still suffers nightmares. And despite his hearty love for the open water, he no longer captains ocean-going tugs.

"I work exclusively inside now," Link says, meaning he works only inside the breakwater that protects Los Angeles Harbor. "After an experience like that, I just didn't want to ever have the possibility of having something like that ever happen again. I didn't want to tempt fate."

The accident, which is apparently without precedent in U.S. Navy history, occurred June 14. The Barcona was on an overnight trip from Santa Catalina Island to Long Beach, tugging two barges of quarried rock that was to be used in a landfill construction project. Link and Rodriguez were asleep below deck, while Ballanger was guiding the tugboat through a thick fog in water 2,500 feet deep.

At 4:45 a.m., the Houston, a fast-attack submarine based in San Diego, snagged one of the steel tow cables linking the tug to its barges. The boat was pulled downward so fast, and with such force, that the crew had no idea what had happened.

"From the time I woke up until the time I finally got out of the tug was 35 to 40 seconds," Link recalls. "By the time I escaped, we were still 15 to 20 feet under water and I was still trying to get out of the wheel house."

Link and Rodriguez both swam to the safety of the barges. Ballanger, 32, was last seen going below deck to check on the Barcona's engines.

The U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board are still investigating the incident; a report is expected this spring. A Navy investigation, the results of which were released to reporters in censored form this week, discovered that the crew of the Houston correctly identified the tugboat but did not realize it was towing barges.

The Navy found officers aboard the Houston disagreed over what to do when the submarine hit the towing line. The duty officer decided to sound a collision alarm but was overruled by his commanding officer, who ordered an emergency dive. Minutes later, the Houston's skipper, Cmdr. John Sohl, ordered the crew to shut down the sub's engines in an attempt to ease the pull on the cable--which the crew mistakenly thought was a fishing net.

The Navy's conclusions about who deserved blame for the accident were censored out of its report. A Navy spokeswoman said no Houston crew member lost his job as a result of the Barcona sinking, although Sohl was later relieved of his command for a series of incidents involving the submarine, including the tug accident.

And, while no lawsuits have been filed against the Navy in connection with the Barcona, lawyer James Zorigan said he has filed a claim against the Navy on behalf of the Ballangers and Rodriguez. And the president of Connolly-Pacific Co., which owned the Barcona, said he is negotiating with the Navy.

The Barcona was never raised.

After the sinking, Rodriguez said, he and Link went out in another company tugboat and held a memorial service for Ballanger on the ocean. A Navy vessel came by to pay its respects; Rodriguez said he was miffed that Paramount Pictures, which produced "The Hunt for Red October," did not do the same.

"I would have thought that out of common courtesy or respect there would have been some kind of regards sent to the family of Bryan," he says.

Don Levy, a publicist for Paramount, says the accident had nothing to do with the movie, in which the Houston portrays an American submarine. "What happened happened while the vessel was on a naval maneuver," he said. "It was separate and apart, not connected to the motion picture."

Nonetheless, the movie's release has touched a raw nerve among those whose lives were forever changed by the Houston's presence off the coast last June 14. "All I can say," Link says, "is I don't think the cost justifies the end result."

Yet Rodriguez, unlike his former captain and Ballanger's wife, says he may go see the film--not right away, but at some point. He says he knows it will be difficult.

Then why put himself through it?

"I don't know," he says, sighing. "Sometimes you've got to find a reason to live."

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