JUST THAT QUICKLY

by David Sisler

Everyone who has seen The Hunt For Red October has seen the procedure. Ballast tanks are blown, dive planes are adjusted, and a submarine rockets to the surface, leaping out of the water in a dramatic maneuver. In the film version of Tom Clancey's novel, it was just dramatics. In the Pacific Ocean Sunday it was real life, and nine people died.

The Ehime Maru, a Japanese fishing trawler, and the USS Greenville, an American attack submarine, were both on training maneuvers nine miles south of Diamond head, on the southern coast of Oahu. In events as yet unexplained, as of the time of this writing, the submarine surfaced under the trawler, cut it into two pieces, causing the deaths of nine fishermen.

CNN reports that the U.S. Navy rejected safety recommendations a decade ago that were aimed at preventing such accidents. In a similar incident off California on June 14, 1989, the submarine USS Houston hooked the towline of the U.S. tug Barcona while rising to periscope depth and then dragged the tug partially underwater during an emergency descent.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the incident and in 1991 urged the Navy to require subs to use "active sonar" before surfacing in U.S. coastal waters. But naval officials refused, saying mandating the use of ping-like signals to check objects in the vicinity would make the subs too easily detectable.

Under current procedures, CNN states, after listening with passive sonar for any ships overhead, the submarine is supposed to come up to periscope depth to survey the horizon for an eight- to 10-mile radius. The crew must plot the location, course and speed of any surface ships. The submarine then dives to about 400 feet, blows its ballast and quickly surfaces at an angle of about 25 degrees, all in less than seven minutes.

Was there an area of testing used by the Navy that the trawler violated? Was there a catastrophic failure of sonar systems? Was there a callous disregard of data? Was there a tragic misinterpretation of the data?

Whatever the cause, nine people, including four teen-age students, are missing and presumed dead. Navy officials say the Greenville's skipper, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, has been reassigned pending the outcome of investigations, and could be court-martialed for criminal negligence if an investigation reveals proper procedures were not followed by his ship. Many are speculating, that whatever the outcome of the investigations, Cmdr Waddle's career has been finished by the tragedy.

And it all happened so quickly. Without warning.

And it is appointed unto men (fishermen, high school students, you, me) once to die, and after that the judgement. There is no warning. The only time of preparation for that appointment is right now.

"I have plenty of time," you say. Yes, you do. Until a submarine surfaces underneath your fishing vessel.

Addendum:

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. Seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, 49, was fatally injured Sunday, February 18, 2001, in a multi-car accident on the final lap of the 43rd Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. The announcement was made at 7 p.m. ET by NASCAR President Mike Helton.

"NASCAR has lost its greatest driver," said NASCAR Chairman of the Board Bill France, who himself is recovering from life threatening illnesses, "and I personally have lost a great friend."

Earnhardt, who won the 1998 Daytona 500, was unconscious when he was cut from his No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet after the accident between Turns 3 and 4 of the 2.5-mile speedway as a tangled pack of cars raced to the checkered flag.

Earnhardt was only yards from the finish line on the final turn of the final lap.

Just that quickly.

-30-


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Copyright 2001 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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