With the Pentagon's report on the collision between a U.S. Navy submarine and Japanese fishing boat imminent, the Navy today announced that visiting civilian passengers would be barred from operating equipment until the investigation into the mishap is completed.
Civilians onboard the USS Greeneville were at two control positions Feb. 9 when the nuclear submarine surfaced while practicing an emergency procedure and accidentally collided with Ehime Maru, a fishing boat carrying Japanese students. The Ehime Maru sank, and nine of the 26 people aboard are still missing and presumed dead. The search is still on for possible survivors, although officials admit there is little hope of finding any of the missing alive.
The Navy announced today that submarines would not be allowed to carry out the emergency surfacing maneuver with civilians on board until the investigation is completed. However, non-military visitors will still be allowed on submarines, Navy officials said.
As officials made their announcement, ABCNEWS learned that a preliminary Pentagon report on the collision is expected to show there were no mechanical problems on board the sub, and that officers did take 360-degree looks with the periscope before the vessel surfaced.
The Pentagon report, sources told ABCNEWS, leaves open the question of how high the periscope was raised, a critical issue for determining the range of vision the captain and his watch officer would have had. However, the report says the officers did not wait an excessively long time after scanning the surface before bringing the submarine to the surface.
Though investigators found the civilian visitors on the submarine did not create any major distractions, they said it was clear the sub would not have carried out the "emergency blow," a rapid rise to the surface, if the guests had not been aboard.
The report also finds that officers of the submarine did search for survivors of the Japanese boat once the collision occurred, but choppy ocean conditions may have prevented them from seeing any.
Investigators have been looking into why the commander of the USS Greeneville, Scott Waddle, apparently failed to spot the Japanese trawler either through the periscope or by using sonar just before descending deep and then performing the emergency blow. In addition, President Bush ordered a review of all policies concerning civilian activity during military exercises. Officials say Waddle could face criminal charges.
Waddle has been reassigned pending the results of the investigation.
Anti-American Resentment Growing
Japanese resentment over the crash continues to swell.
"It is outrageous. [The U.S. Navy] is slack," Defense Agency chief Toshitsugu Saito said at a news conference.
Relations between the U.S. armed forces and the Japanese government were troubled even before this accident at sea. Okinawans have been bitter about their island's use as a home base for the bulk of the U.S. military presence in Japan — approximately 26,000 of the 48,000 U.S. troops are stationed in the entire country.
To exacerbate the issue, Marine Lt. Gen. Earl Hailston, the senior U.S. commander on Okinawa, recently called his hosts "nuts and wimps" in an internal e-mail message. Hailston later apologized.
As a result those problems, including several documented assaults on local woman by American servicemen, the local government of the island adopted a resolution calling for a revision of an agreement on U.S. military forces to enable local police to detain criminal suspects more easily.
In that resolution, Okinawans asked for the military to hand over a Marine suspected in a series of arson attacks last month. Okinawa police have prepared an arrest warrant for 23-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Kurt Billie on suspicion of setting fire to several restaurants.
It is possible that Bush's first opportunity for a personal apology over the accident could come as early as next month when Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori comes to the United States in early March to meet Bush, according to one Japanese newspaper.
Officials: Unlikely That Civilians Played a Role
Even before the Pentagon report, officials said they do not believe the 16 civilian guests on the submarine played a direct role in the incident, though they have not ruled that out.
The Navy told the public only Wednesday that the civilians were on board, and has since apologized for not earlier informing the public and the National Transportation Safety Board about their presence. The NTSB is conducting its own investigation into the crash because it involved a civilian vessel.
"Clearly, in hindsight, we could have done a much better job of making that information known not only to you all, but to the NTSB," said Pietropaoli. "I think people were assuming that the Navy would be the right ones to make that available, and we didn't do a good job of getting that out sooner."
NTSB spokesman John Hammerschmidt confirmed that a civilian was allowed to flip the Greeneville's ballast activation levers, which shoots the water out of its ballast tanks helping to raise the vessel quickly to the surface during the emergency maneuver.
He said that civilian and another civilian who was
seated at the helm
were being closely supervised at the time. In the case of the ballast levers, a member of the crew was standing next to the civilian and was said to guide the civilian's hand as the levers were pulled. At the helm, the Greeneville's helmsman stood over the other civilian.
Bush said the military would need to reconsider its policies regarding civilian visits during military exercises.
Officials say it's common practice to have civilian guests, including family members invited aboard vessels during exercises such as the one last Friday. But experts say it is not necessarily common for them to steer the vessel during a critical maneuver such as the emergency surfacing maneuver performed by the Greeneville.
"When you're doing something that's out of the ordinary, especially when you're testing an emergency procedure, which the ballast blow is, you don't want civilians within arm's length," submarine analyst and author Norman Polmar told ABCNEWS.
ABCNEWS.com's David Ruppe contributed to this report.