Japanese Captain Waited in Vain for Sub Rescue

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a calm but agonized voice, the captain of the Japanese fishing vessel that was struck and sunk by a Navy submarine testified Wednesday about waiting in vain for the sub to mount a rescue effort for survivors adrift in choppy seas.

Hisao Onishi told a court of inquiry that the Ehime Maru's crew members and students expected the Greeneville to help those who were tossed into the sea or forced to abandon ship in lifeboats as the trawler sank within 10 minutes.

"I was able to see two or three people on the bridge of the submarine," Onishi said. "We were hoping that they would lower their inflatable boats, but the only thing they did was lower the [rope] ladder.

"They were watching us."

Onishi said he could not understand why the Greeneville's captain did not send divers to look for survivors. Twenty-six crew members and students scrambled into life rafts lowered from the trawler as it sank, but nine were lost and are now listed as dead.

Wednesday's hearing marked the first time that the two captains at the center of the international tragedy had come face to face.

Testifying through a translator, Onishi avoided eye contact with the sub's captain, Cmdr. Scott D. Waddle, as he spoke about the collision and frantic minutes that followed.

The failure of the Greeneville to mount a rescue effort for those in the lifeboats and a search for the nine missing has intensified the anger in Japan over the Feb. 9 incident. The sub's crew immediately requested emergency help from the U.S. Coast Guard, which rescued the 26 survivors within an hour. Navy officials have said that bringing the sub close to the lifeboats for a rescue attempt could have jeopardized more lives.

After Onishi finished his hourlong testimony, he met privately with Waddle in an office next to the hearing room. "I wanted a chance to meet with him and offer my apology," Waddle told reporters. "I think it went well."

Waddle said he also would like to visit Japan to carry his apology to the school whose students were aboard the Ehime Maru. Four students were among the victims.

Waddle said Onishi indicated that he feels shamed that the Ehime Maru's crew could not save everyone aboard.

"I know Onishi feels so bad, and I apologized for how he is having difficulty," Waddle said. "I know also that the [trawler's] crew did their best to rescue the trainee-students."

Navy officials, while probing Waddle's conduct, have indicated that the captain was following Navy procedures by not ordering divers into the water or taking other measures. The Greeneville, after colliding with the Ehime Maru during a rapid ascent maneuver, went into an emergency dive and then resurfaced quickly.

A rope ladder was thrown from the sub's bridge to the sub's deck as crew members contacted the Coast Guard.

But as Onishi and others yelled for help, Waddle ordered the submarine to steam away.

Navy officials have said that opening the sub's deck hatches for rescue personnel would have put the sub in danger of being flooded.

Also, the presence of a 6,500-ton sub could have made the lifeboats unstable and led to the survivors being dumped back into the water, officials have said.

The Greeneville, like other subs, has experienced divers in its crew and practices man-overboard drills. But divers are usually used in cases where survivors are spotted in the water, not to do underwater searches in a large area.

Before coming to court, Onishi received a briefing by the Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force about the Greeneville's lack of a rescue effort.

If Navy officials were hoping that Onishi would publicly forgive Waddle and the Greeneville on this volatile issue, they were disappointed.

Asked by a Navy lawyer if the actions of the sub's crew had been explained to him, Onishi replied only that they had. He declined any opportunity to say he agreed with Waddle's decision.

The 58-year-old veteran captain--who bowed respectfully to the court as he entered and departed--was shown great deference by the three admirals sitting in judgment and also by attorneys for Waddle, Lt. Cmdr. Gerald K. Pfeifer and Lt. j.g. Michael Coen.

The admirals did not ask Onishi any questions. Waddle's lead counsel, Charles Gittins, prefaced his questions by noting that his client, as the captain of a submerged submarine, take responsibility for the collision.

Gently, Gittins asked Onishi if all 35 aboard the trawler, which was used as a training ship for the fishing industry, were accounted for after the collision. Onishi said there was not time for such an accounting as his ship began to take on water rapidly.

The implication of Gittins' question is that the nine may have never gotten out of the ship and thus could not have been saved even if the Greeneville had sent divers into the water.

Onishi, questioned by Navy lawyers, said the collision caused "a terrible sound of bang, bang about twice and the ship came to a halt."

Thrown into the water, Onishi scrambled into a raft and began a frantic search.

"The raft I was aboard, life preservers and fish floats were nearby," he said. "I was hoping I would find somebody clinging to them, so we yelled and searched for them, but I was unable to find them."

As Onishi testified, Kazuo Nakata, the father of one of the nine victims, sobbed and appeared near to collapse. Nakata lost his only son, a fishing instructor aboard the Ehime Maru.

"I would like to say something, but I can't think," Nakata told reporters after Onishi's testimony. "I just can't think."

Actions taken after the collision, while having little practical effect, have taken on symbolic value. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori was criticized by his countrymen for continuing his golf game after being informed of the collision.

Mori plans to lay a flower wreath on the crash site nine miles off Diamond Head next week as he stops in Hawaii after a meeting in Washington with President Bush.

The collision, in which the sub's hull and steel rudder sliced through the 190-foot trawler, occurred as the submarine executed a dramatic but risky maneuver known as an "emergency blow," which sends the sub rocketing to the surface.

The court of inquiry has been charged by Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the Pacific Fleet, to determine how the Greeneville failed to spot the Ehime Maru through its sonar, radar and periscope.

Waddle and Coen have offered to testify only if given assurances that their testimony will not be used against them if the Navy decides to hold a court-martial. Pfeifer has indicated he will testify without such an assurance.

On the day of the collision, the Greeneville had set sail with 16 civilians as part of the Distinguished Visitors public relations program. Waddle was eager, witnesses said, to show his visitors the full capability of the submarine.

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