The Submarine & The Sea Mount

This week we remember the tragic submarine accident that occurred on January 8, 2005. Submarine accidents are extremely rare. The development of nuclear powered submarines led the Navy to develop rigid standards that are followed to the letter to prevent fatalities at sea. But to error is human and while we think we can have the ocean floor completely mapped out, as the USS San Francisco learned, that is not always the case.

USS San Francisco was launched on October 27, 1979 and commissioned on April 24, 1981. She would be stationed in Pearl Harbor until 2002 when she would move to her new homeport of Apra Harbor, Guam. During her time in Hawaii she would earn a Navy Unit Commendation and her crew was awarded the Navy Expeditionary Medal in 1988. In 1994, she was awarded a Meritorious Unit Commendation while completing a Western Pacific Deployment. When she moved to Guam, she would gain a new Commander, and a history of issues on the boat would quickly become that of a “Cinderella Story.”[1]. On January 8, 2005, Commander Kevin Mooney and the crew of SSN 711 were sent on a port visit to Australia. They were passing through the Caroline Islands when all of a sudden, at 525 deep down, they came to a stop. The 137 crew members were at a loss for what had just occurred. What they would later find out was that the submarine had struck an uncharted undersea mountain. It was in these initial moments that bravery and resourcefulness kicked in. Much of the crew had been thrown about the compartments due to the collision. In the end there were a total of 98 injuries – one of which would later lead to a fatality. For those who were still able, they quickly began to take stock of the damage. The biggest fear in those first moments was the fear of flooding. At 500 feet deep, the water pressure is 16 times what it is on the surface. While some sailors tended to the most serious injuries, others began an emergency operation in which they would pump air into the submarine’s ballast tanks in order to surface the boat. Senior Chief Danny Hager recalls, “I told them 525 feet O acceleration. And I’m waiting, you know, 5 seconds, 10 seconds, I don’t know how long it was, you know, 525 feet, 0 acceleration. And it was just absolutely silence in control because they’re waiting for me to report that we were accelerating upwards.”[2] Unbeknownst to the crew at the time, most of the front ballast tanks had been destroyed in the crash. After what felt like hours but was in actuality just minutes, they were finally able to begin raising the sub. But they had no idea what would happen when they surfaced. Twenty of the crew members were so severely injured that they were unable to operate their stations. The rest of the crew was battling injuries of their own as well as everyone coming to the terrifying realization of the situation at hand.

The most serious of the injured was Petty Officer Joey Ashley. He had been thrown the farthest during the crash, some 25 feet, and had a serious head injury. The crew would take turns staying with Ashley, holding his hand, and taking care of him. An attempt to airlift him off the ship was unsuccessful. Ashley would survive 24 hours before passing away. Despite the heart wrenching situation, the crew had to press on. Once they were able to stabilize the sub enough, they sailed for Guam at 10 miles an hour. It would take the crew 52 long and hard hours to make it back to Guam. They were left to contemplate how such an accident could happen. And in the same breath, realized that the damage could have been so much worse. As the San Francisco’s left port on January 7th, the crew was using a single set of charts. Most of the time, submarines run true to the motto – run silent, run deep. Sonar gives off a distinctive ping which would give away a boat’s location, a problem a submarine does not want to have. The ocean is vast, and while much of it is charted, back in 2005, the area of south Guam was not. When the San Francisco came upon the Caroline Islands mountain chain, the charting crew believed the path to be clear in front of them. At 11:30 A.M., a sonar reading confirmed what the team was reading on the charts. The ocean was 6,000 feet deep. At 11:38 A.M., the decision was made to go to 525 feet. Another sounding was suggested, but Lt. Cmdr. Bruce L. Carlton, the navigation officer, didn’t think it was necessary. The crew’s training took over and by 11:44 A.M. the submarine was surfaced, and the captain was scanning through the periscope. Mere minutes had changed these men forever. The first rescue ship would not arrive until 4:30 A.M. on January 9th. As the San Francisco pulled into port on January 10th, the other submarines in port had their flags at half-mast and the crews were lining the decks in tribute. The San Francisco accident occurred at a time before satellites made navigational fixes precise. The lack in technology at the time caused the chart that was being used on boat to be inaccurate. Upon investigating the situation, Mooney, Carlton and Lt. Cmdr. Rick Boneau were relieved of their duties and three enlisted men were reprimanded. Mooney has taken full blame for the accident. He says he should have been going slower, that he should have better looked over the charts. “Had I appreciated that the charts really are not that accurate, then I would have navigated my ship more prudently.”[3] He knows, just like any other Navy Commander, that they are the highest authority on that vessel, and if something happens, it is on them. They are held to a high standard because they must be, and as Mooney states, “we can’t afford to have another San Francisco.”[4]

Since the accident, satellite technology has gotten more precise and greater mapping of the ocean has been completed. The Navy has also briefed hundreds of officers on how to avoid such an event from ever happening again. It wasn’t until the submarine was placed in dry dock that many of the sailors aboard could really face the damage that had occurred, and how close they really came to losing it all. To the crew of the San Francisco, the death of Petty officer Ashley will forever taint how they look at the collision. However, the fact that the San Francisco was able to surface and make it back to Guam is a remarkable feat. This is due to safeguards put in place back in 1963 after the loss of the USS Thresher. This incident led to the creation of the SUBSAFE program which would ensure that no matter what, the hull could maintain structural integrity under pressure and that a submarine would be able to surface. In situations like that of the San Francisco, the main goal was to have the hull, ballast systems and reactor working properly. If these parts remained intact, the crew would have a chance. In 2013, an admiral was quoted as saying that, “were it not for SUBSAFE decades earlier, USS San Francisco might have been lost.”[5] The San Francisco would return to sea three years later with a new nose. The bow of the USS Honolulu, which was set to be retired, was taken to repair the crushed vessel. She would serve for another eight years before heading to Norfolk to be transformed into a permanently moored training vessel. This week, and always, we remember Petty Officer Ashley, and the brave men who stayed by his side, making every effort to try and save his life. We also remember their strength as they sailed the long road home after enduring so much. We take the lessons learned from this tragedy to make a more efficient and safer submarine force.

Joseph “Joey” Allen Ashley, Machinist Mate 2nd Class (U.S.N.)

 

 

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/18/us/adrift-500-feet-under-the-sea-a-minute-was-an-eternity.html

[2] Martin, David. “Who’s to Blame for Sub Accident?” https://www.cbsnews.com/news/whos-to-blame-for-sub-accident/

[3] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/whos-to-blame-for-sub-accident/

[4] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/whos-to-blame-for-sub-accident/

[5] Mizokami, Kyle. “In 2005, a U.S. Navy Submarine Ran into a Mountain- The USS San Francisco didn’t sink, and that’s no accident.” http://www.popularmechanics.com/military/navy-ships/a24158/uss-san-francisco-mountain-incident/

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