A top U.S. naval officer has issued a formal apology to the government and people of Japan for the Ehime Maru tragedy.
“I sincerely and humbly request — on behalf of the United States government, the United States Navy and the American people — that the government and people of Japan accept our apology for the tragic loss of the Ehime Maru on Feb. 9,” said Adm. William J. Fallon, vice chief of naval operations.
Fallon, the Navy's no. 2 officer in Washington, was sent to Japan as a special envoy to deal with the fallout of the tragedy.
Two civilians were manning key control positions on board the USS Greeneville, a nuclear submarine, as it surfaced rapidly during a drill, striking and sinking the Japanese fishing boat. Of the 35 people aboard the Japanese trawler, 26 people were rescued, but nine people are still missing and presumed dead.
Among the missing are four schoolboys.
Fallon delivered a personal letter from President Bush to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori "expressing our nation’s apologies and regret to the Japanese people." He will also brief the premier on the status of the investigation into the accident.
He is expected to meet Thursday with families of the missing.
“I know my words cannot express the profound sorrow and regret that the American people feel over this tragic event,” he said after landing at Yokota Air Base, outside of Tokyo. “By coming from Washington to be here in person, I seek not only to apologize, but also to promote better understanding between the people of our two nations.”
'Most Sincere Regret'
On Sunday, the former commander of the Greeneville expressed his "most sincere regret" over the incident.
Cmdr. Scott Waddle's statement was sent by his lawyer to Japan's public television network, NHK, where it was read and broadcast nationwide in Japan.
It came as the Japanese public continued to demand a personal apology from Waddle, and amid reports that the Navy's investigation is widening to include additional Naval personnel.
"It is with a heavy heart that I express my most sincere regret" for the accident, Waddle said. "I know that the accident has caused unimaginable grief to the families of the Ehime Maru's missing students, instructors and crew members … and to all of the Japanese people."
However, the younger brother of Yusuke Terata, 17, one of the nine Japanese still missing, told The Associated Press that his family is far from satisfied.
"We refuse to accept it as an apology," said Shunsuke Terata, 15. "It's not an apology until he says it to each one of us in person."
In addition to Cmdr. Scott Waddle and two of his top officers, sources say Capt. Bob Brandhuber, who was in charge of the civilians on the submarine, and the submarine's fire control technician may also be added to the investigation.
Brandhuber, who is not a crew member, was the highest ranking officer on the boat. He ranks above Cmdr. Waddle, and the other two officers named in the inquiry, Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Pfeifer and Lt. Michael Coen.
His role in the accident is key because he was the host of the 16 civilians aboard the USS Greeneville when it sank. It was his job to make sure the civilians did not interfere with the crewmen.
The "fire control technician" told investigators civilians distracted him from doing his job plotting sonar contacts.
But investigators tell ABCNEWS he also stopped verbally calling out targets even though he was reportedly tracking the Japanese boat on the surface.
When the USS Greeneville rose to periscope depth, investigators now believe the Ehime Maru was only about a mile away, directly behind the submarine. The captain and officer of the deck both looked in that direction through the periscope, but did not see it.
The Navy said the $900 million submarine may be more seriously damaged than first thought.
Sources say the rudder post may need replacement, which would require forging an entire new piece to keep the sub running quietly.
The court of inquiry, convened for March 5, will determine whether disciplinary action should be taken against any or all of the officers named as subjects, and could ultimately lead to a court martial. Under Navy rules, the presiding officers at a court of inquiry can name additional subjects or "parties" at any time during the proceedings.
As the investigation moves forward, the Coast Guard continues to search for the nine missing at the request of the Japanese government.
A search which has so far covered more than 30,000 square miles — an area roughly the size of Maine — at a cost of more than $1 million.
"We are going to continue to search as if they're still out there," Greg Fondran, spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard.
The National Transportation Safety Board left Hawaii today having reached no conclusions on its investigation.
Waddle, who could face court-martial proceedings, along with other top submarine officers after a weeks-long investigation by the Navy, said he would not speak to investigators with the NTSB until after the Navy investigation is completed.
Political Implications for U.S.-Japan Relations
The sinking of the fishing vessel has further strained relations between Washington and Tokyo, and comes after a top U.S. military officer in Okinawa was forced to apologize for calling local politicians “nuts” and “wimps” in a private e-mail.
U.S. military personnel have been implicated in a series of crimes, ranging from sexual harassment of a schoolgirl to arson accusations.
The incident has also caused the popularity of the government of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to further plummet, with the Japanese media now speculating on not whether but when the premier will resign.
On Monday, Mori told a stunned Diet that he didn’t know the phone number to the crisis management center in his own residence, and was unable to get updates on the tragedy days after it happened.
ABCNEWS' Neal Karlinsky and NewsOne contributed to this report.