Originally Posted by F M All
Nords, why would 4 sailors be on the hull when leaving port in such weather? Wouldn't any piloting be done from the conning tower?
Gumby's full-story caveat notwithstanding, I tend to take an unsympathetic view of the people who are responsible for not killing anyone in what should be a routine evolution. I was one of those topside guys on midshipmen cruises and on sea duty. During my SUBPAC tour I read the full multi-decade mishap file and helped maintain the collision/grounding brief that was based on decades of misfortunate experience. I heard all the Cold Warrior's sea stories that we can't talk about. I knew Scott Waddle, I was on the periphery of the investigation into the USS GREENEVILLE's killing of nine Japanese fishermen, and I know a lot of shipmates from that crew-- so I'm feeling eligible to comment on this situation.
Bad weather is no excuse. This degree of stupidity could be called criminal.
This casualty may be even worse than usual because one of the deceased was a senior chief-- either the boat's most senior enlisted supervisor or in the top five. He probably jumped in and died trying to save the others.
All the piloting & navigation is done from the bridge, backed up by the control room's navigation team. (The bridge uses eyeballs and maybe a pilot, the control room uses the persicopes and the radar.) The topside guys handle lines/tugboats and after the tug is cast off they "rig topside for dive". That means they have to get all the topside equipment belowdecks, put away a few pieces of hardware like the retractable cleats, and manipulate a few valves or levers that tend to be cranky. (For example, LA-class submarines use recessed line-handling capstans that are raised/lowered by hydraulics. The hatch behind the sail is also hydraulically pumped open/shut.) The goal is a smooth outer hull (no hydrodynamic friction) with no loose metal. Then they have to shut the hatch. If these things aren't done correctly you can hear the swooshes & rattles right away on your sonar system. Then you have to swallow your embarrassment, find a quiet part of the surface (probably back inport) and do it until you get it right. That tends to add an element of urgent supervisory coercion pressure to the situation. It's no fun, even in Pearl Harbor, and in the Atlantic winter it can be downright deadly.
In that part of the world at this time of year they should be topside in full exposure suits with boots, life jackets, and "deck crawlers"-- pieces of chain that fit into topside tracks and attach to a body harness with a six-foot shock cord. One of the crewmembers topside is a rescue swimmer-- a submariner trained by Navy divers in SCUBA & rescue techniques and one of the boat's hardbodied stud swimmers. He'd be wearing a 3/8" custom-fitted neoprene wetsuit (or even a drysuit) and all his rescue gear, ready to go in. Of course even Kevin Costner can't be much help when the surface water temp is in the low 40s and someone might bang their head on the hull as they fall.
If the topside gear wasn't working well, a supervisor should've gotten it fixed or had a plan to work around it. That's hindsight and I can all too easily understand how a balky valve got put on the "later" list. However there shoulda been a workaround for the problem and a recovery plan.
People hate wearing protective gear and the harness/shock cords really limit mobility. But that short shock cord is designed to keep people from falling all the way into the water-- perhaps waist deep, depending how close the hull was to the surface. But people routinely substitute a length of longer line or a second shock cord, and I nearly lost a guy who did that. Supervisors should be aware of that and check their people when they're topside. I did it all the time. It's a PITA and so are the supervisors but it can prevent worse problems, especially if someone's knocked unconscious.
The port guides and the weather forecasts tell mariners what the conditions could be like. The pilot and the port staff know what the day will bring. If the weather sucks so badly that topside is hazardous then you either come up with a plan to do most of it pierside, or you have the topside rigging done by the Weapons Officer and his chief (with the rescue swimmer), or you delay the underway. This wasn't an emergency port sortie and even if it was an urgent emergent mission it could've been planned and deliberately carried out.
It's not rocket science, and it's not such a wartime crisis that the boat merited risking the lives of the topside crew. It's just a failure to foresee and to plan for the worst while not giving enough slack time to recover. It was all totally avoidable, especially if you've had a near-miss experience to help focus your mind on the priorities. Now the accident is putting a crew and their families through hell, and pretty soon the effects will ripple out to the entire submarine force.
Politics & personalities kept Scott Waddle from being court-martialed for killing nine Japanese mariners, including teenage students. If there's the same degree of negligence in MINNEAPOLIS ST. PAUL's situation, I hope a court-martial will send the right message to other supervisors.