By ROBERT A. HAMILTON
Day Staff Writer, Navy/Defense/Electric Boat
Published on 2/12/2005
The captain of a submarine that hit a seamount Jan. 8 in the western Pacific Ocean, killing one crewman and seriously injuring 23 others, has been found guilty of operating the submarine unsafely and has been issued a letter of reprimand, effectively ending his career.
Cmdr. Kevin Mooney, the captain of the USS San Francisco, was permanently relieved as skipper after an administrative proceeding known as an admiral's mast. The proceeding was convened by an order of the commander of the Seventh Fleet, Vice Adm. Jonathan Greenert.
Cmdr. Ike N. Skelton, a spokesman for the Seventh Fleet in Yokosuka, Japan, said late Friday night that Greenert determined during the investigation that Mooney failed to follow “several critical navigational and voyage planning” standards.
“By not ensuring those standards were followed, Mooney hazarded the vessel,” Skelton said, reading from a statement issued by Greenert.
The mast concluded that Mooney's crew had access to charts that showed there might have been an underwater obstruction in the area, and that a sounding taken just minutes before the accident did not correlate with the charts that were in use at the time, which should have prompted him to be more cautious.
The news stunned several Navy sources who have been following the accident investigation, particularly because Mooney's actions after the accident were characterized as heroic by everyone familiar with the situation. Despite extensive damage to the ship, he and his crew got it to the surface and kept it floating long enough to limp back to its homeport of Apra Harbor, Guam.
The San Francisco was heading to Australia when it came to periscope depth a little more than 400 miles southwest of Guam to fix its position accurately. Minutes after diving, and while traveling at a high rate of speed, the submarine slammed into a seamount in an area where official Navy charts list 6,000 feet of water.
Other charts of the area, however, show muddy water in the area, which normally indicates shallowness, and other government agency charts show evidence of the seamount less than 150 feet below the surface.
The grounding destroyed three of the four ballast tanks in the submarine's bow, shattered the sonar dome and smashed the sonar sphere. In addition, a bulkhead at the front end of the ship was buckled.
Machinist Mate 3rd Class Joseph Ashley was killed when he was thrown more than 20 feet and struck his head on a large pump. Almost two-dozen others were injured so badly they could not perform their duties, though they have all since been treated and released from the hospital in Guam. Seventy-five others received less severe injuries.
The crew saved the ship by constantly running a low pressure blower meant for only intermittent use to force water out of the badly damaged forward ballast tanks, as well as using exhaust from the ship's diesel motor to augment the blower.
Despite the force of the blow, the nuclear reactor and the ship's turbine generators continued to operate normally, and even sensitive electronic and navigation gear continued to function.
On Jan. 20, Mooney was reassigned to Submarine Squadron 15 in Guam, pending the results of an investigation to determine the cause of the sub's grounding. Cmdr. Andrew Hale, the squadron's deputy commander, assumed duties as captain of the San Francisco.
The mast means that Mooney will not face a more serious proceeding known as a court martial, but the letter of reprimand and the decision to relieve him of command “for cause” means that his promising career is over, the Navy sources said.
In a related development, Lt. Cmdr. Jeff A. Davis, a spokesman for the Pacific submarine force commander, said late Friday night that assessment of the damage to the San Francisco is proceeding and that shipyard workers in Guam are planning to make temporary repairs to the bow of the ship so it can be moved under its own power to a shipyard where it can be repaired.
Although the location where it will be repaired has not been determined, Navy sources said it would likely be Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, or Bangor, Wash.
“These temporary repairs will be engineered to ensure a successful transit,” Davis said. “As part of having on-hand materials for potential use in these temporary repairs, a large steel dome about 20 feet high and 20 feet in diameter will be arriving at Guam in the next few days. As of now, no decisions have been made about when USS San Francisco will depart Guam, where it will go, or what her final disposition will be.”
Other Navy sources said that if the assessment determines it makes sense to repair rather than scrap the San Francisco, the Navy will likely use the entire bow section from the recently decommissioned USS Atlanta to replace the badly damaged bow of the San Francisco.