July 12, 1989
THE WASHINGTON POST
By Andy Rose
LONG BEACH, Calif.óNavy submarines have been involved in at least 42 collisions with vessels since 1983, including five incidents involving fishing boats that were dragged or sunk, according to federal documents obtained by the Press-Telegram newspaper in Long Beach.
The records reveal numerous accidents worldwide, ranging from collisions with other submarines to collisions with fishing boats.
The information comes after a collision between the nuclear submarine USS Houston and the Long Beach-based tugboat Barcona June 14. The Houston snagged the tug's towing cable during an emergency dive off Long Beach, sinking the boat and killing a crewman.
The reports, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, are "not necessarily inclusive," a Navy spokesman said. Navy officials declined to comment on the cause of the collisions or relative safety of submarine operations.
However, in the Barcona incident, Navy officials confirmed that use of passive sonar may have contributed to the sub crew's failure to detect the tugboat. Submarines routinely use passive sonar, which involves listening for engine noise, rather than the more accurate method of sending out pinging sounds.
After the Barcona incident, Navy officials also acknowledged that submarines sometimes do not detect surface ships if cruising in a "dead zone," where sonar does not pick up engine sounds. Navy officials also said the tug's engines may have been masked by noisier boats.
Capt. Jim Bush, a retired submarine commander now a consultant with the private Center for Defense Information in Washington, said he was "very surprised" to hear the number of collisions involving Navy submarines.
"If that's true, I would say that's a problem," Bush said last week, adding that he could not comment at length without reviewing the figures personally. "It seems to be much higher than the number of collisions involving [Navy] surface ships. And obviously there are far more surface ships."
Navy officials did not release figures on surface-ship collisions.
The U.S. fleet includes 139 submarines, all but three of them nuclear-powered. Surface ships number more than 500, ranging from aircraft carriers to oilers.
Submarines collided with other Navy ships at least 28 times in the last six years, :he records showed. Those included five Collisions with other submarines, one with a destroyer and 15 with Navy tugboats.
At least 14 times, the submarines struck tugboats or fishing boats or their nets, anchors or towing cables.
In five incidents, including the Barcona sinking, commercial boats were dragged backward before crews either cut lines free or the lines snapped.
The Navy also released details of 13 collisions involving "objects." For example, U.S. subs collided twice with piers, twice with debris and twice with mooring buoys.
Regarding the Barcona incident 10 miles off Long Beach, a Navy spokesman said the death of Barcona crewman Brian Belanger, 32, of Norwalk, Calif., is the only casualty from a U.S. submarine collision, "as far as we know."
Studies by private organizations, however, allege that others have died in crashes involving subs of other nations.
The Greenpeace Foundation recently released a study that detailed 36 snaggings of commercial boats since 1952. One incident, involving a Danish fishing boat and the West German diesel submarine Simpson, resulted in the death of three crewmen April 29, 1984, the study said.
Greenpeace spokesman Josh Handler said the organization began documenting accidents in part to show the danger of a nuclear-powered fleet. For example, he said, a Soviet submarine caught fire from the strain of dragging a snagged Japanese fishing boat in 1984.
"So even if we accept the Navy's contention that [nuclear reactors] are safe, that's relatively little consolation, because the submarines they're in are susceptible to all, problems as any other sips," he said..
RECENT U.S. SUBMARINE COLLISIONS
DETAILED NAVY INFORMATION ON 12 INCIDENTS OF
U.S. SUBMARINE COLLISIONS SINCE 1987
Feb. 18, 1987: Unidentified sub snags net of British fishing boat Summer Morn, towing smaller craft for more than three hours. Navy paid $29,300 to settle claim.
Sept. 26, 1987: Unidentified sub snags net of British fishing boat Heroine. Navy paid $18,382.
Nov. 6, 1987: USS Henry M. Jackson strikes fishing boat South Paw of Bangor, Wash. Navy paid $25,721.
Nov. 17, 1987: USS Haddo "possibly" forces fishing boat aground off Washington coast. Fishing-boat skipper radioed sub to report the incident. No claim filed.
July 19, 1988: Unidentified sub snags towing cable of civilian tugboat Jacqueline W. pulling tug backward until cable snaps. Navy paid $59,984.
Aug. 28, 1988: Unidentified sub hooks anchor of fishing boat Sinaway Navy-paid $2,350. -
Jan. 4, 1989: Unidentified sub collides with fishing boat New Dawn. Case under investigation.
April 5, 1989: Unidentified sub breaks anchor of Canadian fishing boat Pearl E. Navy paid $1,712.
April 5, 1989: Unidentified sub damages net of fishing boat Nootka Mariner. Navy paid $2,350
April 17, 1989: Unidentified sub snags net of British fishing boat Laurel, towing smaller vessel for 15 minutes before crew cuts net free. Case under investigation.
June 14, 1989: USS Houston snags towing cable and sinks commercial tugboat Barcona 10 miles off Long Beach. One crewman drowns, and two are rescued. Case under investigation.
June 16, 1989: USS Houston shreds net of fishing boat Fortuna off San Pedro. Skipper promised to file claim.