HONOLULU — As tearful relatives of those missing at sea visited the site of the collision between a U.S. submarine and a Japanese fishing trawler, the Navy dispatched two high-tech undersea vehicles Monday to scour the ocean floor for wreckage--and possibly to recover bodies.
Nine crew members, students and teachers who were aboard the trawler when it sank nine miles off Diamond Head on Friday still are unaccounted for. The accident occurred when the sub Greeneville struck the Ehime Maru during a planned emergency-surfacing drill. Twenty-six other people aboard the trawler were rescued.
Searchers picked up the last of the Ehime Maru's 10 life rafts Monday, dimming hopes that anyone will be found alive. Still, the Coast Guard planned to continue searching a 6,500-square-mile area.
"We're still looking for people hanging onto debris, and we're looking for people in life jackets," said Lt. Greg Fondran, a spokesman for the 14th Coast Guard District. "Obviously, the longer we look without finding anyone, the closer we come to suspension of the search. But we're not at that point yet."
At a briefing Monday evening, National Transportation Safety Board investigator John Hammerschmidt painted a harrowing picture of the survivors scrambling to safety as their vessel sank. Some of the students who were interviewed at length said that after the boat was struck, they looked out on a passageway filling with water and gushing oil. A few remembered to grab life jackets, but others did not as they raced to their mustering stations in search of lifeboats.
Several of the students were washed overboard by waves.
"Some of them said it looked like the image of the Titanic going down," Hammerschmidt recounted. "As the vessel was sinking, one student described climbing up the mast to stay above the water. The boat was down in five minutes."
Meanwhile, the Navy and the NTSB continued to investigate why the nuclear-powered attack submarine--outfitted with sophisticated sonar and a high-powered periscope--did not know that the trawler was in the area.
One point of concern to the NTSB was whether the submarine had used both its passive and active sonar systems before attempting the drill, in which the submarine pops rapidly to the surface.
After a 1989 incident in Los Angeles' San Pedro Channel--in which the submarine Houston snagged the towline of a tugboat and dragged it beneath the water, killing a crewman--the NTSB recommended that submarines use both active and passive sonar when surfacing in U.S. waters.
Passive sonar listens for sound; active sonar emits a ping and waits for the rebounding noise.
The Navy rejected the NTSB recommendation, leaving the decision to the discretion of individual submarine commanders.
Many submariners--including those at the top of the Navy--believe the use of passive sonar and a periscope inspection is the safest method to reduce the risks inherent in surfacing. Active sonar, many say, is even more vulnerable to underwater distortion than passive sonar.
Capt. Richard Sharpe, a former submarine commander in the British Royal Navy and now editor of Jane's Fighting Ships, explained: "Most of the time with active sonar, you hear nothing at all. Passive sonar, with good people trained in target-motion analysis, remains the only reliable way."
Late Monday, the Navy loaded the Scorpio II deep-submergence vehicle onto a plane at North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego and shipped it to Hawaii to aid in the search--along with Deep Drone, another remote-control vehicle from the East Coast. The Scorpio last year helped locate wreckage and remove bodies from the Alaska Airlines plane that crashed off Ventura County.
The robotic vehicles--with mechanical arms and cameras that can pierce the dark--were expected at the crash site early this morning, Navy officials said. The 190-foot trawler sank within minutes in 1,800 feet of water.
The spot off Diamond Head where the ship went down is within a submarine operating zone marked on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maps, but is not off limits to other ships. It is crossed regularly by vessels heading to neighboring islands south of Oahu, such as Maui and the Big Island.
"I believe this was very routine for both parties to be in the area, passing through," said Seaman Andrew Kendrick, a spokesman for the 14th Coast Guard District.
The submarine's crew and passengers are scheduled to be interviewed today. The Navy has declined to identify the 15 civilians who were aboard the sub at the time of the accident, but said they were mostly businesspeople.
Asked whether the sub's crew was demonstrating the dramatic surfacing technique for the civilians, NTSB official Hammerschmidt replied: "That, of course, is what we hope to learn from our interview process of the people aboard the submarine."