Sub That Sank Tug Cut Fishing Net 2 Days Later

Times Staff Writers

The nuclear-powered Navy submarine Houston, which in a freak accident Wednesday sank a tugboat off Long Beach and killed one of the tug's crewmen, cut through a San Pedro fishing boat's net just two nights later, the Navy reported Monday.

The Friday night incident occurred several miles south of Los Angeles Harbor as the attack submarine, running on the surface, headed for its home port of San Diego after participating in the filming of "The Hunt for Red October."

The submarine had been on standby for filming Wednesday when it snagged the barge tow cable of the tugboat Barcona, pulling it under in 2,500 feet of water. Pilot Bryan Ballanger died but two other tug crewmen survived.

The Navy, the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the earlier accident.

Cmdr. John Sohl was in command both times, the Navy said. He could not be reached for comment.

"He's not going to answer any queries," said Lt. Sonja Hedley of the San Diego Submarine Base. "Let's face it. With two incidents like this, he's not real happy to talk to the press right now."

The latest incident involving the 360-foot, 6,900-ton Houston, which occurred about 9:40 p.m. Friday, came to light when someone overheard radio dispatches from the 33 1/2-foot gill net boat Fortuna, skippered by John M. Emirzian, 51, of San Pedro.

Emirzian said the submarine cut through his new $3,800 net and cost him "a substantial catch" taken on the first day of the sea bass fishing season.

Emirzian said he was laying a gill net outside the shipping lanes about six miles southeast of Point Fermin when he spotted the submarine's conning tower coming toward him.

The Navy claims that the fishing boat was putting its net out in the southbound shipping lane.

Emirzian, who said that his vessel carried the proper international fishing lights and that the net was adequately marked with 48 red and white balloons, claimed that the submarine was traveling rapidly eastward and cutting across the southbound shipping lane.

'Looked Like Chicago'

"There was a million deck lights on," Emirzian said. "It looked like Chicago out there. All they had to do was look."

He said that when it appeared the sub was not going to change course, he picked up an 11-inch knife and stood by to cut his net loose in case it seemed that his boat was about to be dragged down.

"I saw the silhouette of the sub, all blacked out, the running lights on," Emirzian recalled. "I thought it was over."

He said the sub sliced through the half-mile-long net 800 to 900 feet astern of his boat.

The fishing boat skipper said he radioed the submarine "just as he was going through the net." He said he asked the name of the sub and was told the information was "classified." Instead of identifying his vessel, Emirzian said, the submarine commander gave him a San Diego telephone number for the public relations office at the submarine base.

Emirzian said the sub "never slowed down" and that if it had not sliced through the net, his boat would have been dragged under. As it was, he said, he had to recover his net and return to port to repair it, losing two valuable days of fishing.

The Navy said the Houston was turning from a precautionary zone into the southbound shipping lane when it struck the net. It contended that the net was in the southbound lane where it did not belong.

In confirming that the Houston had been involved in another accident, Hedley said it was the fishing boat rather than the submarine that was crossing the traffic lane.

"That's what I'm getting from my people on the Houston," Hedley said. "The fishing trawler was in the traffic lane you shouldn't be in . . . trawling. Our guys were crossing over from one lane to the other in . . . the precautionary zone."

"The precautionary zone," she explained, "is an area where all vessels, if they are going to cross from south to northbound, this is where they are supposed to cross."

But, she added, "we don't want to have any kind of . . . fight about it."

"If we cut his net, we'll pay for his net, and that's all there is to it. People cross fishing nets like that and clip them all the time," Hedley said.

She said the accident occurred as the Houston was on the way to San Diego. She said that the fishing boat skipper radioed the sub to say he thought his net had been cut and that the Houston supplied the Navy telephone number so that the fisherman could ask for Navy help.

The submarine's crew, she said, reported they did not see the lights on the Fortuna.

"Our legal staff has contacted the Fortuna skipper and has given him information on how to recompense his claim," Hedley added.

Petty Officer Yvette Juran of the submarine base said, "The Navy is expected to process the Fortuna's claim expeditiously."

She noted that no one on either vessel was killed or injured.

Navy officials declined to give the submarine's precise location at the time of the accident, but Hedley said that when the submarine advised the Fortuna that its nets were in the precautionary zone, the fisherman seemed surprised and responded, "We better get out of the traffic."

Capt. James C. Card, commander of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office, said that based on the fisherman's description of his location, the Fortuna would have been in a legal spot just outside the shipping channels.

Michael Fiamengo, member of the board of directors of the California Gillnetters Assn., said there have been other such incidents involving fishing boats and Navy submarines.

Subs 'All Around'

"It's happened to me on, I want to say, three occasions, but definitely we've confirmed two occasions," Fiamengo said.

"They're all around," he said of the subs. "The Navy will . . . because they're playing their war games or whatever . . . drive right over your net. I've gotten on the radio and called them, but they won't respond back to you."

Mace Neufeld, producer of "The Hunt for Red October," a military thriller based on the novel by Tom Clancy, said scenes involving the Houston were completed Friday afternoon. Reached at his office at Paramount Pictures, he said he was startled to hear that the sub had been in yet another accident, saying, "It's the first I've heard of it."

The Houston, a Los Angeles class attack submarine that was commissioned in September, 1982, had been taking the part of the USS Dallas, the fictional sub in the film. The Houston carries a crew of 140.

Asked whether being in the film had caused problems for the sub, Navy Lt. Brian Cullen said in Washington that there was "no way in the world that a submarine commander would in any way compromise the safety of his ship to accommodate a filming schedule."

The Navy sometimes allows movie and television producers to use its ships, but rarely allows access to nuclear-powered submarines. Navy officials have said they hope "Red October," which stars Sean Connery and Scott Glenn, will help push enlistments for both submarines and surface ships.

Times staff writers Scott Harris in Los Angeles, Richard A. Serrano in San Diego, Melissa Healy in Washington and Jay Sharbutt in New York contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World