View Full Version : ‘Everything Went Flying’

01-15-05, 08:02 AM

Guest Column: ‘Everything Went Flying’

Editor’s Note: This is an email sent by a chief petty officer onboard the nuclear attack submarine USS San Francisco describing the grounding incident that killed one crewman and injured several dozen others. The email has been widely circulated within the U.S. Navy Submarine Service and has been provided to DefenseWatch:

To All,

I thought that I would put out a note since a lot of you have been calling and writing to find out how things are and if I’m OK and what happened. If you hadn’t heard, my boat hit a uncharted submerged sea mount at the highest speed we can go at about 500 ft. below the surface. There were about 30 of us that were seriously hurt and, unfortunately, one of my shipmates didn’t make it.

First off, I am OK. I am pretty beat up with my entire left side and butt as one big bruise. My shoulder is separated and may require surgery. They will evaluate later this week. I am very fortunate that I hit the wall and didn’t go down a ladderwell that was right next to where I hit. If I had gone down that, I would have got really messed up.

I took a tremendous shot to my left thigh from something. If it had been slightly lower in the knee area it would have been really ugly. But all in all I am in good shape. We hit it at about noon right after field day (where all of us clean the boat for several hours). Thank God we didn’t hit while we were doing this or it would have been much worse. We would have had flying deck plates through the air and such. Not good.

As it was, it happened while chow was going on and most people were either sitting and eating or on watch. I don’t remember much of the collision. People describe it as like in the movie, “The Matrix,” where everything slowed down and levitated and then went flying forward faster that the brain can process. My mind has blanked it out exactly what happened. Adrenaline kicked in and I have no real memory of how I got down to middle level or what I did immediately following.

I helped carry several shipmates to the crew mess deck (adrenaline is a wonderful thing - my shoulder was wrecked and I had no idea until about 4 hours later). I sat with several of my junior guys that had bad head wounds and talked with them to keep them conscious until doc could see them. It seemed like an eternity but I’m sure [it] wasn’t that long.

For those Navy folks that ever wondered why Chiefs stomp around and preach, “Stow for Sea,” this was a perfect example. It definitely saved lives.

I am extremely proud of the crew to do damage control, help the wounded and get the boat safely to the surface (for the boat guys we blew the tanks dry on the emergency blow but unbeknownst to us we were missing some ballast tanks – some didn’t have integrity).

The ship’s control party did every thing exactly right even though they were hurt as well. The Diving Officer of the Watch had just unbuckled his belt to update a status board and hit the Ship’s Control Panel hard enough to break some of the gauges. To add insult to injury, his chair came up right behind him. Several people were injured in the Engine Room Lower Level area. Lots of metal and sharp edges in the area as well as that’s where the boat’s smoking area is. Several crew members are reevaluating that habit now.

Once again, we got lucky in the fact that we had an extra corpsman onboard. One of our officers was a prior enlisted corpsman who was a Fleet Marine Force medic so he was a Godsend for us. Our Corpsman did an outstanding job getting everyone stabilized and did the best he could for our fallen shipmate.

I am surprised that he got him to hold on as long as he did. Our corpsman is definitely a hero in my book. He didn’t sleep for 2 or 3 days. We finally put him down when the SEAL docs helicoptered in to help. Like I said, I am extremely proud of my crew and how they handled themselves.

My Chief of the Boat was an inspiration of what a leader should be and my Captain was as well. My XO took out an EAB manifold with his back but still managed to help coordinate things. No matter what happens later, these men did a superior job under difficult circumstances. I am humbled by the entire crew’s performance from the CO down to the seaman that I was checking in two days before.

For those of you wondering, I am sure there will be an investigation into what happened and, no, I was not part of the navigation preps for this voyage. I work on the inertial/electronic navigation and interior communications part of my rate and didn’t have anything to do with the conventional navigation part of it. I will be lending support to my comrades who were to help them prepare for the pending investigation.

I thank you all for your concern and appreciate your prayers not only for myself, but for my shipmates. We are doing well, we band of brothers and will pull through just fine.


Brian Frie, ETC (SS), USS San Francisco (SSN 711)


01-19-05, 08:34 PM

Six Minutes to Danger

By Raymond Perry

As the Navy investigation into the grounding and near loss of the nuclear attack submarine USS San Francisco (SSN 711) on Jan. 8 continues, navigational chart error has emerged as a contributory and significant cause of the accident, which killed one sailor, injured three dozen other crewmen and severely damaged the submarine.

According to one major newspaper account (“Outdated Chart is Suspected in Submarine Grounding,” *The Washington Post, Jan. 16, 2005) the *San Francisco might have been using an “outdated” chart on its trip from Guam to a port visit in Australia.

According to an official at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the organization that produces maps for the Defense Department, “The charts used today may not reflect the reality of what’s actually on the ocean floor.” He added that the chart in question was created in 1989 with earlier technology, explaining, “You think [the charts] are right until somebody tells you they're not.”

The spokesman’s comments suggest a quiet shedding of responsibility for the submarine’s collision with an underwater seamount by supporting organizations.

It is important to recognize that the Post article’s description of the charts in use on the San Francisco as “outdated” is a misnomer: The reporter clearly did not understand a seaman’s use of that term. If the chart was in fact the current edition published, then it was not “outdated,” although the information on which it was based may have been old.

During my Navy career, I have used modern charts that were based on surveys conducted by the HMS Beagle in the mid-1800s – the sailing ship that earlier carried scientist Charles Darwin on his Pacific explorations. Still, if that chart in use was the current chart, then it was not outdated, however old its information. It costs real money to precisely chart the world and the chart makers must spend that money carefully and to best effect.

The key issue, then, is whether or not a more recently updated chart was available and should have been used. For example, six months after its infamous collision with a Japanese fishing school vessel near Oahu in February 2001, the submarine USS Greeneville (SSN 772) ran aground on the island of Saipan on Aug. 27, 2001. The Navy determined that the ship had used a truly outdated chart to navigate into port and in following it, ran onto shoal water. (The investigation into the *Greeneville grounding found, in part that the crew had used “an incorrect edition of a navigation chart with improperly applied chart corrections.” That is, this was the wrong chart.)

A prudent seaman, when faced with a chart whose basis is questionable, has several tools to keep his ship and shipmates safe:

* As he navigates, a seaman determines the expected depth of water and checks it periodically.

* A prudent seaman adjusts his speed and sounding interval to the confidence he has in the waters that he transits.

* A chart tells the seaman what its basis is. It shows the “density,” or number, of soundings per square mile so that he may be confident in a good chart and skeptical of a chart whose basis is only a few soundings.

* A chart tells the seaman the age of the data. In the case of sketchy information reported by one or a few ships or agencies, it will note things as “reported.”

The defining professional document for Navigation is “The American Practical Navigator”, Pub No. 9, more commonly know as “Bowditch,” named for Nathaniel Bowditch, the seaman who extensively refined methodologies for safe navigation in 1802. This document discusses taking soundings periodically for two reasons: to verify that the bottom is as shown on the charts in use and to cross-check that the ship is where it thinks it is.

Bowditch enjoins a ship’s Navigator to fix the ship’s position, and to cross-check soundings no less than every 30 minutes in open ocean transits. In this day of satellite navigation and extraordinarily advanced and accurate inertial navigation equipment, it is easy and simple to fix one’s position.

The philosophy is simple: one should verify that the ship is safe frequently because of the deadly consequences when little errors cause a ship to founder. Admiral Chester Nimitz verbalized this thought when he said:

“The time for taking all measures for a ship’s safety is while still able to do so. Nothing is more dangerous than for a seaman to be grudging in taking precautions lest they turn out to have been unnecessary. Safety at sea for a thousand years has depended on exactly the opposite philosophy.”

This philosophy has governed seamen for thousands of years.

The waters where the San Francisco mishap occurred are not a deep abyssal plain such as much of the Northern Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. A quick review of the bathymetry on the NOAA website shows that these waters, the Caroline Islands, are clearly broken with many seamounts. This website presents only a very broad-brush depiction of these waters, but it tells the story: this is broken territory and a seaman should be cautious. The Navy is not unfamiliar with the Carolines, having spent several campaigns there during World War II.

As reported in wire stories on Jan. 10, the San Francisco was traveling at about 30 knots when it struck the underwater seamount. When going this fast, a ship travels 3,000 yards every three minutes. The Washington Post article noted that the San Francisco was just 6,000 yards from a noted area of water discoloration that in retrospect depicted a shallow-water seamount.

Why did this ship intend to pass just six minutes from a potential danger area? Did this submarine adjust her fix and sounding interval, and maybe her speed, so that she could detect an unexpected rise in the bottom?

Seamounts don’t just spring up. They have foothills and take at least a few miles to rise from a deeper bottom. If the San Francisco was taking soundings every 30 minutes, she would have covered 15 miles – or 30,000 yards – between each sounding. Could the ship have detected the foothills if she had been navigated prudently?

Reliable sources indicate that a senior officer was embarked on San Francisco. Could her skipper have been showboating? Did his presence aboard the sub intimidate her skipper? This has been a pertinent issue in earlier submarine mishaps (See “Why are Navy COs Getting the Ax?” DefenseWatch, March 2, 2004). It is critical for the Navy to investigate the potential involvement of a senior officer in order to determine the full account of why the San Francisco accident occurred (also see “A Second Look at the Greeneville Collision,” DefenseWatch, Apr. 1, 2004).

Clearly, there is a basis for concern. The Submarine force is seeing a progression in the severity of accidents. This accident is no different. Not only did it take a life and cause a number of serious injuries, but also it came extraordinarily close to sinking the San Francisco with the loss of all 137 of her crew.

The Submarine Force must take a very hardnosed look at the larger picture of this accident. It must look itself in the eyes in the mirror, no baloney, no posturing for the big boys, just tell it like it is and face the music.

This is another in a progression of increasingly more severe mishaps in recent years. The *San Francisco grounding shows that the Submarine Force is marching up an accident pyramid. Don’t skimp and gloss over this one, gentlemen.

Lt. Raymond Perry USN (Ret.) is a DefenseWatch Contributing Editor. He can be reached at cos1stlt@yahoo.com. Please send Feedback responses to dwfeedback@yahoo.com.


01-19-05, 08:36 PM
Lessons from a Submarine Mishap

By Raymond Perry

The recent grounding of the nuclear attack submarine USS San Francisco (SSN 711) in the western Pacific should serve as a wake-up call to the nation rather than be noted as an afterthought of the risks our youth take in military service.

How did the San Francisco hit bottom in the accident on Jan. 8? There is much yet to yet find out pending completion of an official Navy investigation. What is known is clear: The sub hit bottom while transiting at high speed from its new homeport in Guam to Australia. Citing an email from Pacific Fleet Commander Rear Adm. Paul F. Sullivan, The New York Times today reported the sub struck the sea mount so “incredibly hard” that some 60 of its 137 crew members were injured and one sailor who later died was thrown 20 feet by the force of the impact.

It’s a big ocean out there and there is a real tradeoff of time taken to get somewhere versus the cost of nuclear fuel and wear and tear on the ship.

The direct cause of the grounding could have been a navigational chart error, which would relieve the captain and crew of any responsibility. In any event, chart errors are rare, only occurring a handful of times in a century of submarine operations. This is due to the high state of underwater charts in these days of satellite mapping. So even if chart error is a contributing cause, there are routine navigation practices that should alert the ship to hazards ahead.

What are the larger issues involved? Most importantly, this nation gets its money’s worth out of its military people. They work hard, beyond just being tired, and coffee is the fuel of long, long hours of watchstanding at sea. So the probability is that whatever errors occurred on the San Francisco there were good people working hard who still came up a bit short at noon on Jan. 8.

Two additional issues that loom large for the nation come to mind from this mishap:

First, there is a progression in the severity of U.S. submarine accidents, ranging from minor bumps and scrapes to near-catastrophic incidents such as this grounding.

Second, the mishap is a potential example of what I term a potential weakness among military leaders today: the insulation for leaders at the highest levels that allows them to see things as they want them to be, not as they really are.

The Navy and the profession demand that San Francisco Commanding Officer Cmdr. Kevin Mooney foresee all eventualities. He surely reviewed all charts and plans for the planned trip to Brisbane, Australia. It is certain that he checked the ship’s position on the charts frequently as the mission progressed.

So a vital question that the investigators will ask is this: Did Cmdr. Mooney see the world as he wanted it rather than as it was? A case can be made that this issue was a key element of a number of recent submarine accidents. Several senior submariners involved in at-sea accidents saw their careers unexpectedly terminated in the past three years (see “Why Are Navy COs Getting the Ax?” DefenseWatch, March 2, 2004).

However, this issue goes far beyond the narrow realm of Navy ship commanders. In a recent news analysis (“Rumsfeld’s Legacy: The Iraq Syndrome?” The Washington Post, Jan. 9, 2005), commentator Lawrence Freedman reported that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz responded to then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki’s proposal for troop requirements following combat by stating that it would be “hard to conceive” that it would take “more forces to provide stability in … Iraq than … to conduct the war itself .… ” As the Defense Secretary’s principal subordinate one can only presume that these words were spoken as if by Donald Rumsfeld himself.

What one infers from such pronouncements by civilian leaders is a profound disrespect for the military profession and those in uniform who lead it.

In an article last month examining the Pentagon’s denial that armored vehicles were necessary in Iraq (“How the System Shorted Armored Humvees,” DefenseWatch, Dec. 9, 2004), I discussed how the current military personnel system itself persists in creating a small and dominating core of officers and civilians dedicated to providing exactly what senior leaders want – reality notwithstanding.

In the case of armor shortages in Iraq, Wolfowitz’ remark is far more condescending than even the belittling remark made early in the Clinton administration by a petty White House staffer to then Gen. Barry McCaffrey: “I don’t talk to the military.”

More to the point the recent commentary by retired Marine Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, who writes in the current issue of the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings of the corrosive effects of military leaders who place loyalty ahead of integrity.

Telling seniors the truth as one understands it is an obligation of the military profession, Hoar argues. Every officer learns early on that he must gracefully accept contrary decisions once he has made his case. The courage and grace required to do so remains a key element of why the military profession is held in such high esteem by the American people.

The rub comes when seniors cease to honor honest and forthright dissent and treat it as disloyalty and punish it.

Those officers investigating the submarine’s grounding have a tough job. They must compare the performance of the officers and men of the USS San Francisco with well laid-out professional standards. Yet their task will be far easier than that of those monitoring the interplay of loyalty versus integrity within the Pentagon.

Lt. Raymond Perry USN (Ret.) is a DefenseWatch Contributing Editor. He can be reached at cos1stlt@yahoo.com. Please send Feedback responses to dwfeedback@yahoo.com.

Bow down, USS San Francisco enters Apra Harbor, Guam, two days after grounding.

Make no mistake about it: if one looks at photos of the San Francisco returning to port in Guam, it is clear that she hit an underwater terrain feature that was more vertical than horizontal. The ship is riding bow-down in the water, confirming that the impact and sudden stopping of a nearly 7,000-ton submarine surely did much damage to the forward hull. That she survived is testimony to the good engineering and construction by her builder. But the visual evidence is clear: We almost lost an entire submarine and crew.



01-19-05, 09:21 PM
The sea is not forgiving of mistakes.
The air is less forgiving then the sea.
If you are a Marine in aviation, you will face both.
Hell's bells, that's the fun of it!

01-19-05, 09:57 PM
Just a passing thought.. with what level of conidence am I suppose to look at Navy attack subs (the ones that are suppose to hunt down the hostile boomers that would attack us), when these attack subs cant seem to miss a underwater mountain, or end up on a beach or sandbar someplace like a beached whale, maybe the Navy could cut a deal with Greenpeace to push them back out to sea when they get beached?