Thursday, May 12, 2005

Sub crew's training paid off in disaster

By Katie Worth
Pacific Daily News
12 May 05

When the USS San Francisco slammed into a mountain more than 500 feet below the ocean's surface, 29-year-old medic James Akin was in the bathroom. Machinist Matthew Thurman, 21, was standing in line in the mess hall, waiting for lunch.

Suddenly, things seemed to explode around them. Deafening blasts, crunching noises and groans fulminated from the front of the ship. The vessel lurched, and crew members were thrown through the air, off their beds and against walls, tumbling against each other through the compartments of the submarine.

They had just experienced one of the biggest submarine disasters in the history of any navy.

Akin barely remembers thinking. He just remembers jumping to action, running out of the head and into the hallway. The petty officer was the only medically trained man on ship. Before he knew it, he had dozens of injured people on his hands. Half of the submarine's crew sustained wounds. Thurman was thrown from the lunch line and collided into a wall -- a wall he credits with saving him from far worse injuries. He immediately jumped up and ran toward the propulsion system, to check if there had been any damage.

The San Francisco and its 138 sailors had been in stealth mode, making their way from their home port here in Guam to Brisbane, Australia, for what was supposed to be a routine port visit. The ship made it only about 360 miles southeast of Guam at the time of the Jan. 8 accident, which would leave dozens of crew members injured and one dead.

In the moments after the crash, reports of injured sailors began pouring over the Intercom, crew members who were not wounded were running to their stations, and the submarine immediately conducted an emergency main ballast tank blow -- a procedure that pushes water out of tanks in the hull and causes an immediate, rapid ascent. Within a minute, they rose 500 feet to the surface of the water.

Interviewed yesterday, neither medic Akin nor machinist Thurman could remember even considering the cause of the accident at the time. It almost didn't matter. The moment they had been trained for in drill after drill, year after year, had finally arrived.

They both flew to their duty stations.

"Time just seemed to move slower than it had been; our training just kicked in," Thurman said yesterday, rubbing his hands together as he thought back on it. "And then, everything started to get faster again."

"The Navy invests a lot of time in training for emergencies, and it definitely paid off," he said.

Thurman ran toward the propulsion system, where he worked as a machinist. On his way, he passed injured friends lying in the hallways, unable to move. He began to kneel down to help them, but they waved him on.

"Everyone's only concern was saving the ship. I stopped to help people but they said, 'No, just go ahead, make sure the ship's OK,'" he said.

Meanwhile, Akin began setting up a makeshift infirmary in the enlisted men's mess hall. He alone on the ship had medical education, though he had trained a few men in basic medical treatments in case there was such an emergency.

Dozens of crew members began coming in with injuries -- broken bones, smashed faces, dislocated bones, head trauma, bruises, cuts, lacerations; in all, 70 sailors had sustained wounds.

But by far the worst injury Akin saw was that of Petty Officer 2nd Class Joseph Allen Ashley, he said. Ashley, who worked on the ship for three years, had been on a smoke break in the compartment farthest to the rear of the vessel. He had just left the smoke room and was walking across the next compartment when the accident occurred, Akin said. It sent him flying across the room, slamming him head first into a locker.

Once Akin saw the extent of Ashley's wounds, he evacuated the other injured sailors into another improvised infirmary and kept Ashley, who was still alive but critically injured, in the mess hall.

Hours later, a helicopter would bring a surgeon from Guam to try to treat Ashley, but it was to no avail. Ashley died the next day. It wasn't until several days later, Akin said, that he really had a chance to stop and contemplate the accident as a whole.

The Navy, however, didn't take so long, beginning an investigation into the cause of the accident immediately. Earlier this week, the Navy released the results of that four-month investigation.

The 124-page report determined that the accident possibly could have been avoided had the submarine's crew "complied with requisite procedures and exercised prudent navigation practices."

Though the report stated that nothing more could have been done to save Ashley, it stated that the accident possibly could have been prevented in the first place had the San Francisco's navigation crew heeded a navigation chart that indicated a "navigation hazard in the vicinity of the grounding," the report stated.

The report held the San Francisco's navigation team and leaders responsible for the accident. The vessel's commanding officer, Cmdr. Kevin Mooney, was removed from his post Feb. 12.

Some have questioned how the submariners could not have known the mountain was in front of them, but Navy spokeswoman Lt. Arwen Consaul yesterday explained the submarine had no way to "see" what was around it.

The San Francisco was traveling in stealth mode, using "passive sonar" rather than "active sonar," she said. When a submarine is using active sonar, it "pings" the ocean around it and is able to "view" the vicinity, she explained. But such technologies make noise and can alert other vessels to its presence, she said, so the vessel avoids using it when it's in stealth.

Some things, such as whales or ships, make noise, and the passive sonar system can pick up those noises so the vessel is aware of them. However, since a mountain makes no noise, there was no way to tell it was there, she said.

Without active sonar, the submarine is essentially blind and is completely dependent on charts to determine what is around it, Consaul said.

"It's basically like being on a bus with all the blinds down and driving down Marine Drive, with only your map to guide you," she said, referring to the island's main route. "If someone puts a bypass there and it's not on your map, you're in trouble."


After the accident, Akin said, he told himself he never wanted to get back on a submerged submarine. Since then, he's reconsidered.

After all, he said, USS San Francisco's accident was the first of its kind for the Navy in decades, and one of the worst submarine accidents in history. Despite that, the hull remained intact. In many ways, it's a testament to the strength and impermeability of the submarine, he said.

Thurman, who's been in the Navy for four years, admitted that the experience was traumatic.

"You're under the surface with 130 of your closest friends, so yes, there's trauma in seeing them all injured. But we performed as required. There's no greater testimony to the dedication and determination of the crew than how we responded to the emergency," he said.