a reply to: Flyingclaydisk
Blood was everywhere. Sailors lay sprawled across the floor, several of them unconscious, others simply dazed. Even the captain was asking, "What just
happened?" All anyone knew for sure was that the nuclear-powered attack submarine had slammed head-on into something solid and very large, and that it
had to get to the surface fast.
In the control room, a senior enlisted man shoved the "chicken switches," blowing high-pressure air through the ballast tanks to force the vessel
upward. Usually, the submarine would respond at once. But as the captain, Cmdr. Kevin G. Mooney, and top officers stared at the depth gauge, the
needle refused to budge.
Moments before, they had been slipping quiet and fast through the Pacific. Now, they were stuck, more than 500 feet down.
Ten seconds passed. Then 20, 30.
"I thought I was going to die," Commander Mooney recalled.
It would be close to a minute, but an excruciatingly long minute, before the submarine's mangled nose began to rise, before the entire control room
exhaled in relief, before the diving officer, Chief Petty Officer Danny R. Hager, began to read out a succession of shallower depths.
"I don't know how long it was," Chief Hager said, "but it seemed like forever."
Last week, Navy investigators reported that a series of mistakes at sea and onshore caused the 6,900-ton submarine, the San Francisco, to run into an
undersea mountain not on its navigational charts. One crewman was killed, 98 others were injured, and the captain and three other officers were
relieved of their duties as a result of the Jan. 8 crash, one of the worst on an American submarine since the 1960's.
But what is becoming clear only now, from the first interviews with Commander Mooney and 15 other officers and enlisted men, as well as a review of
Navy reports, is how much worse it nearly was, and how close the San Francisco came to being lost.
The submarine crashed at top speed -- 33 knots, or roughly 38 miles an hour -- about 360 miles southeast of Guam. The impact punched huge holes in the
forward ballast tanks, so the air being blown into them was no match for the ocean pouring in. The throttles shut, and the vessel briefly lost
propulsion. As the emergency blow caught hold, mainly in the rear tanks, the sub was just drifting in the deep, its bow pointing down.
Luckily, the thick inner hull protecting the nuclear reactor and the crew's quarters held. But within was pandemonium -- bodies pinballing, heads
striking steel in the warren of lethally sharp surfaces in impossibly tight spaces. There was so much blood on the instruments and on the control-room
floor that the place, Chief Hager said, "looked like a slaughterhouse."
Then chaos gave way to improvised heroism and a perilous, and finally futile, effort to rescue the most grievously injured sailor.
The merely battered ministered to the badly hurt, turning the mess hall and the officers' wardroom into instant clinics, ripping off shirts to use as
tourniquets and creating splints from cleaning brushes. When they realized that the only hope for the dying man, a young machinist's mate named Joseph
A. Ashley, was to get to a hospital, sailors cut off railings and fixtures to thread his stretcher through narrow areas. They then rigged pulleys in
an effort to hoist him through the sail, at the top of the submarine, and onto a helicopter hovering just above.
To avoid detection, submarines travel silent and largely blind, relying heavily on charts, and their interpreters, to navigate the undersea landscape.
The meeting of this submarine and that mountain beneath the Pacific was in many ways a stroke of hauntingly rare bad luck: everyone relied on the one
chart, from a panoply of them, that lacked even a hint of the looming danger. But the submarine's fate was also the result of a confluence of simple
The Navy has placed the blame on the captain and the crew, and Commander Mooney says, "I accept full responsibility." He acknowledges several critical
mistakes, including going too fast, taking insufficient depth soundings and failing to cross-check the route with other charts.
Yet the fact that those errors happened on a boat with a highly rated commander suggests a more nuanced calculus of responsibility, raising questions
about the relatively primitive state of undersea charting and the training and support of submariners.
Petty Officer Ashley's father, Daniel L. Ashley, a Navy veteran, refuses to let the Navy off the hook. Sitting in his home outside Akron, Ohio, one
recent morning, with a memorial of flags and photographs on the family organ, Mr. Ashley said he had forgiven Commander Mooney and the crew.
"I know what these men have to live with for the rest of their lives," he said. "I feel the same pain."
But if the Navy's systems for supporting submarines had not also broken down, he said, "this would not have happened, and my son would be alive
A Normal Saturday
As the San Francisco prepared to shove off in early January, spirits were high. Since taking over in December 2003, Commander Mooney had pushed his
136 sailors through four months of repairs and two intelligence missions. The San Francisco, previously known as a troubled boat, was winning praise
in the Navy as a "Cinderella story."
Now the submarine was headed for Brisbane, Australia, and its first liberty stop under the 40-year-old captain, a graduate of Duke University and a
submarine officer for 19 years. One thing, though, was bothering him, he recalled: the basic routing instructions seemed to be late. So he told his
navigators to call the Seventh Fleet in Japan and hurry them along.
The goal of the routings was to ensure that no other Navy ship would cross the submarine's path, and they laid out a wide track to follow. But some
officers had come to view these navigational guides as suggesting a measure of safety. And as the San Francisco left here on Friday, Jan. 7, the team
plotting the precise route within that track focused on a single set of charts that, Navy officials agree, usually gave the most detailed view of the
Since submarines generally do not use active sonar, with its telltale pings, a good picture can be critical in avoiding mountain ranges rising from
the seabed. Relying on charts, though, has always been somewhat hit or miss. Only 10 percent of the oceans have been charted by Navy survey ships.
Many charts only include obstacles spotted by warships, commercial vessels or even 18th-century explorers like Captain Cook.
One poorly charted area was south of Guam, where the Navy started basing subs in 2002. So by Saturday morning, when the San Francisco entered the
Caroline Islands mountain chain, there had been talk of special precautions among some of the men. But to the plotting team, the winding route down to
Australia looked wide open.
To the rest of the crew, it was just a normal Saturday, which meant cleaning the boat. Lunch began at 11 a.m. -- hamburgers, French fries, baked beans
-- and at 11:25 Commander Mooney went to the wardroom, where the officers ate. The crew's work shift changed five minutes later, and when a line
formed outside the mess, several men, including Petty Officer Ashley, decided to have a smoke first in the vessel's tail.