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Submarine Crash Not An Accident Skipper May Be Held Responsible For Collision

By Rene Sanchez
THE WASHINGTON POST -- PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii

Three admirals presiding over the Navy’s court of inquiry into the USS Greeneville’s fatal collision with a Japanese fishing ship Thursday expressed serious doubts about the conduct of the submarine’s skipper, suggesting his command that day was sloppy and dangerous.

In the clearest indication yet that they may pin blame for the accident on Cmdr. Scott Waddle, the admirals aggressively questioned a senior Navy investigator about the skipper’s performance. One member of the court, Rear Adm. David Stone, suggested Waddle should be held accountable even if he used reasonable judgment based on the facts he had at his disposal shortly before the accident.

At one point, Stone asked the investigator, Rear Adm. Charles Griffiths, “Do you agree that the events ... are reflective of a command that actually increased its risks while conducting these underway operations?”

Griffiths at first answered that the issue required more review, then added that Waddle “had a bad day where some mistakes were made.” Nine people aboard the Japanese trawler, including four high school students learning commercial fishing, were killed Feb. 9 when the nuclear-powered submarine sliced into its hull while demonstrating a rapid surfacing maneuver for 16 civilian guests.

Later, under cross-examination by Waddle’s attorney, Griffiths said that despite the many serious concerns he had about the skipper’s conduct, “In my opinion, he was not criminally negligent.”

Such a distinction could be crucial to Waddle, 41, who has been relieved of command and could face a court-martial or criminal charges after the inquiry, a fact-finding procedure used by the Navy in high-profile cases.

Two other Greeneville officers also are subjects of the probe, but in the first week of testimony the presiding admirals have dwelt mostly on Waddle’s actions. And at times, they have seemed to be torn over an age-old seafaring question: Should the captain, no matter the circumstance, always be held responsible for the safe operation of his ship?

“There’s a lot of conflict for me right now about where this command really was that day,” Vice Adm. John B. Nathman, the president of the court, said Thursday. “We’ve heard a lot of testimony about the aggressiveness, the knowledge, the forthrightness ... of this commanding officer. But on the other hand, I see things that look like he’s violating his own standards.”

In Griffiths’ testimony this week, Waddle has been portrayed as a charismatic leader whose expertise and past success at sea, paradoxically, may have undermined him because his crew was reluctant to second-guess his judgment.

Also, a technician who analyzes sonar data did not alert officers that another boat was in close range.