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Crewman Lost as Sub Sinks Tug Off Coast

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

The Houston, after assisting in the search for Ballanger, was expected back at the submarine base at Point Loma in San Diego about 6 p.m. Wednesday, according to Hedley.

In Huntington Beach, Birgit Davis, public information officer for the city Fire Department, said: “We had some calls that people had trouble breathing (because of fumes), especially people that called and had done extensive bike riding or jogging.”

While the fumes were especially strong at the beaches, they pervaded much of Huntington Beach, and some calls came from as far away as Garden Grove, Davis said.

But authorities had not been able to detect a source of the odors before they began to dissipate about sunset, said Colleen Kith, supervising fire controller.

Vance Bennett, a Coast Guard command duty officer in Long Beach, said it was unlikely that the odors came from the tug sinking. “It sank in between here (Long Beach) and Catalina. For the smell to go down to Huntington Beach is almost impossible.”

While the tug’s diesel fuel could be leaking through the vessel’s vents, that type of fuel evaporates easily, Bennett said. But he added that the Coast Guard would continue investigating the complaints.

In the movie based on Tom Clancy’s best-selling suspense novel, the Houston portrays a U.S. submarine, the Dallas. Producer Mace Neufield bought the movie rights and later won the cooperation of then-Navy Secretary John Lehman.

Navy officials occasionally permit movie and TV producers to use Navy vessels but rarely allow access to nuclear-powered submarines.

However, Navy officials said they hoped “Red October,” starring Sean Connery and Scott Glenn, would provide a boost in enlistment for the submarines and surface ships, just as the movie “Top Gun” brought a flood of enlistments in the Navy aviation program. A Navy spokesman said Paramount Studios is charged $400 an hour for the period in which the Houston is used.

Marsha Robertson, a Paramount spokeswoman, said the Houston had last been used during filming in April off Port Angeles, Wash. The studio had hoped to use the Houston again this week off Los Angeles if the weather were suitably gray, she said: The director was planning to film the Houston making an “emergency blow,” a maneuver in which a sub makes a fast ascent to the surface.

The Coast Guard Cutter Blackhaw, which is also to be used in the filming, was also in the area Wednesday, according to Petty Officer 2nd Class Brad Smith, a Coast Guard spokesman in Long Beach.

The Blackhaw, which is based in San Francisco, is to be painted to resemble a Soviet vessel and has been tied up at the Coast Guard Support Center at Terminal Island, Smith said.

It left Terminal Island on Wednesday to aid in the rescue operation, he said.

The Houston “perhaps will be involved in the filming in the future,” Hedley said.

Times staff writers Jane Fritsch in San Diego, Maria Newman in Orange County and researcher Tracy Thomas in Los Angeles contributed to this article.

TUG PULLED TO BOTTOM The tugboat Barcona sank 12 miles off Point Fermin at a depth of 2,500 ft.

Tugboat Barcona was en route from its home port of Long Beach to Santa Catalina Island, towing two barges to be to be filled with rock from a island quarry.

The Houston, a fast-attack submarine based in San Diego, was submerged when it caught the 1,000-foot tow cable linking the Barcona to the barges about 4:45 a.m. The tug was pulled down and sank in about a minute. Two crewmen were rescued; one is missing.

The Houston was assisting in the filming of the movie “The Hunt for Red October,” but a Navy spokeswoman said the incident had nothing to do with the filming.


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