Thursday, January 13, 2005

Heroics Saved Sub

Sources Say Crew's Heroics Saved Sub
USS San Francisco reportedly could have sunk following crash

By ROBERT A. HAMILTON, Day Staff Writer, Navy/Defense/Electric Boat

It is increasingly clear that the submarine that hit a seamount in the Pacific Ocean last week came close to being lost and that only the valiant efforts of its crew kept it afloat, Navy sources said Tuesday.

With uncontrolled flooding in its forward ballast tanks, the USS San Francisco had to run a low-pressure air pump for 30 hours straight to maintain buoyancy on its trip home, Navy sources said. The pump is rated for only intermittent use.

In addition, the submarine ran its diesel engines, channeling the exhaust into the forward ballast tanks in an effort to force out more of the water and make the ship lighter.

"Based on the information I've seen so far, they're very lucky this ship didn't sink," said retired Navy Capt. John C. Markowicz. "Only through the heroic efforts of the crew did that ship survive."

The San Francisco, homeported at Guam, was traveling more than 500 feet below the surface at more than 30 knots - about 35 mph - when it slammed into the seamount about 360 miles southeast of Guam.

The New York Times, in its editions today, reports that the submarine hit so "incredibly hard" that about 60 of its 137 crew were injured and that the one sailor who died was thrown 20 feet by the impact, according to internal Navy e-mail messages sent by Rear Adm. Paul F. Sullivan, the commander of submarines in the Pacific.

The messages sent by Sullivan paint a more dire picture of the accident than had previously been disclosed, The Times reported.

The accident came just minutes after the crew had finished a "field day," a cleaning process that involves breaking down a lot of equipment. If the accident had happened an hour earlier, the situation could have been much more serious because the loose equipment hatches and other parts could have become missiles, one source said.

Submariners also noted that if the boat involved had been a newer version of the Los Angeles class, the results could have been catastrophic. The San Francisco, SSN 711, was commissioned in 1981.

Starting with the Groton-based USS Providence, SSN 719, Los Angeles-class submarines have 12 missiles in vertical launch tubes in a compartment just behind the sonar dome. Several submariners acknowledged that such an incident involving a newer boat could have led to a fire in the missile fuel systems, which could have led to a low-order detonation of up to 12,000 pounds of high explosives.

"It could have been a real Kursk-type situation," one Navy source said, referring to the Russian submarine that sank in August 2000 after a fire broke out in its torpedo compartment.

Submariners around the country were poring over charts of the area where the San Francisco hit the seamount and were coming to the same conclusion: The ocean bottom was supposed to be more than a mile below where the San Francisco hit.

In fact, sources said the San Francisco had just submerged from periscope depth and had taken a bottom reading with its Fathometer four minutes before it hit the seamount and that the reading indicated the bottom was 6,000 feet below the keel.

The damage to the submarine, which includes a cracked sonar sphere and severe damage to three of the four ballast tanks near the bow, and some buckling of the forward pressure hull, all argue that the submarine hit something akin to an underwater cliff.

"Going from 6,000 feet to almost nothing in four minutes is a very steep seamount, no question about it," Markowicz said.

The local chapter of U.S. Submarine Veterans has started a fund-raising campaign for the crew of the San Francisco. John Carcioppolo, the local base commander, said the group just finished raising $3,800 for the family of the Canadian submariner killed in a shipboard fire last October, and one of the first pledges has come from the group's counterpart in Canada.

"Before I even announced I was doing fund-raising, I already got a commitment from Buster Brown up in Canada," Carcioppolo said. Brown is the head of the Submarine Association of Canada, Eastern Branch, and a former high-ranking enlisted member of the Canadian Navy. Carcioppolo said he would send any money raised to the captain of the San Francisco, Cmdr. Kevin Mooney, "to be disbursed as he sees fit."

Carcioppolo is a mentor of one of the young enlisted men on the San Francisco, and is acquainted with Mooney as well. "There's been a very strong outpouring of good wishes for Kevin and for everyone on board," Carcioppolo said.

San Francisco was on its way to Brisbane, Australia, just before noon Saturday when it ran into the seamount, crushing the front end of the submarine. At that depth, the water pressure was almost 250 PSI, or about 16 times atmospheric pressure, so the chief concern was to get to the surface as quickly as possible.

The crew executed an "emergency blow," forcing high-pressure air into the ballast tanks to make the submarine rise sharply.Once on the surface, though, the crew realized the ship was experiencing severe flooding into two of the three forward ballast tanks, and had to come up with some type of quick fix.

The low-pressure air system normally used for short periods of time was pressed into continuous service, and the ship started its diesel generators and used the exhaust to augment the blower to keep as much water as possible out of the ballast tanks.

With those emergency procedures in place, the ship limped home to Apra, Guam, where the Navy has rushed flotation devices, underwater engineering gear and technical experts to begin analyzing the damage.

Machinist Mate 2nd Class Joseph A. Ashley, 24, of Akron, Ohio, died from a head wound he sustained when he was thrown against a pump in the machinery spaces. Another machinist mate on duty in the engine room also received a serious head injury and was listed in stable condition Tuesday.

The Navy said 22 other men were injured badly enough to be taken off the submarine, so crew members from the USS City of Corpus Christi and the USS Houston, which are also homeported in Guam, as well as the tender USS Frank Cable, met the ship on its return and took over many of the injured crewmen's functions.