HONOLULU The Navy has not yet ruled out the possibility that 16 civilian visitors aboard a U.S. nuclear submarine may have distracted crew members before the vessel collided with a Japanese trawler, officials said Wednesday.
As the Coast Guard continued searching for nine people missing from the Ehime Maru, and as most of the crash survivors flew home to Japan, Navy officials also acknowledged that their investigation could lead to criminal charges against one or more crew members of the Greeneville.
But so far, they said, investigators had no proof of criminal wrongdoing aboard the attack submarine leading up to the Friday crash.
Meanwhile, Japanese officials who have been in Honolulu since the collision expressed outrage Wednesday over the latest developments saying they could not fathom how civilians could be allowed on board an active sub.
The accident occurred when the 360-foot-long Greeneville conducted a rapid ascent called an "emergency blow" in the seas several miles south of Diamond Head. The crew was unaware that the 190-foot trawler, filled with teen-agers learning commercial fishing, had drifted overhead. The sub's stern split the Ehime Maru.
The vessel sank within minutes, and investigators believe it carried some of the passengers and crew 1,800 feet down with it.
Navy officials disclosed Tuesday that two civilians who were described as Hawaiian businesspeople and community leaders along for a regular "orientation tour" had been sitting in key posts in the sub's control tower when the vessels collided.
Officials said visitors routinely are allowed to sit in the helm and the ballast-control seats to give them the sensation of guiding a nuclear-powered sub. They also said emergency-surfacing drills, which rocket submarines skyward, are a regular part of orientation tours.
Speaking with reporters late Tuesday, Navy Capt. Tom Kyle of the Pacific Fleet's submarine forces said that "it would make no difference" to the safety of a trip if civilians sat in the helm or ballast positions.
"It's not germane to the incident," Kyle said, referring to the crash. "A qualified person would be in total control of that watch station, regardless of whether the civilian or nonqualified person was there or not."
Nevertheless, Navy officials said that they cannot entirely rule out the possibility that the presence of the visitors might have distracted crew members.
Yoshitaka Sakurada, Japan's parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, demanded an explanation Wednesday from U.S. officials of how civilians could have been at the controls of the submarine during its disastrous ascent.
"We in Japan cannot understand why a civilian was at the controls," said a Japanese government delegate present at a meeting between Sakurada and Lt. Gen. Thomas Case, deputy commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command.
"We also don't understand why the United States didn't tell us this earlier," the Japanese official said. "We only found out yesterday. That's not acceptable.'