MELISSA BLOCK, host:
On January 8th, the nuclear-powered submarine San Francisco crashed into an undersea mountain about 360 miles southeast of Guam. The sub was moving at top speed. The crash destroyed the bow of the submarine and sent the crew inside flying. One crewman was killed; 98 others were injured. The Navy has blamed the crew for the accident. Several of the officers were relieved of their duties. It also turns out that the crew was relying on one navigational chart that gives no indication of the undersea mountain. In today's New York Times, Christopher Drew has reconstructed what happened in the accident.
Christopher Drew, welcome.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER DREW (The New York Times): Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
BLOCK: You went to Guam and you interviewed the commander of the submarine and a number of other officers and crewmen. I wonder if you'd describe what they told you about the crash itself, what they felt at that moment of impact.
Mr. DREW: Well, what they described was just the most horrible accident, where, if you can picture, they're just driving along, they have no idea this mountain's there. They're going at the top speed the submarine can go, which is about 38 miles per hour, so it's like being in a car just smashing into a brick wall. Guys go flying around the submarine. I mean, the guy who got killed flew 20 feet and smashed his head into some heavy equipment or the wall. In the control room where they guys are operating the submarine, four guys got knocked unconscious. There's so much blood all over the floor within minutes that one of the officers said it looked like a slaughterhouse.
BLOCK: You mentioned the officer who was killed, Petty Officer Joseph Ashley, a 24-year-old from Akron, Ohio, and you write about the remarkable efforts that were made to save his life.
Mr. DREW: Yeah, he was knocked unconscious. He had a horrible skull fracture. And the medic on board--there's no doctor on submarines, and just the basic medic was trying to take care of him. Twenty-one hours pass before they can get other ships and helicopters to the area. And they're trying to get him off the boat. They go through the narrow passageways on the submarine, they've got guys cutting off stair railings and fire hoses and lockers. They squeeze the stretcher through these narrow passageways all the way to the--right underneath the sail, the part of the submarine that sticks up highest. They've got a rope and pulley set up, they get the stretcher all the way to the very top and they find the hatch doesn't quite open 90 degrees; it only opens about 85 degrees. And it's just not enough--no matter how much they angle this stretcher, they just can't get him out. Shortly after the last attempt to get him out failed, his heart stopped and they never could revive him.
BLOCK: Hmm. This whole story raises real questions about the accuracy of the undersea charts. How is it that the chart that this submarine was relying on didn't show this mountain at all?
Mr. DREW: Still not a great deal is fully known about all the ocean depths. Only about 10 percent of the ocean depths have been really accurately charted. And so when you get out in the Pacific out here, some of the charts are still based on readings that go back to Captain Cook in the 18th century. And for one reason or another--I'm not quite sure why--the one chart they were using--there were three or four charts of the area, but the one chart they were using which normally has the most detail did not have an indication of a potential hazard that was just two to three miles away from where the crash was. And the reason the Navy's blaming the crew is that they're supposed to look at every chart and cross-check them, and they didn't do that this time.
BLOCK: One of the crew that you talked to was the commander of the vessel, and he acknowledged responsibility to you. You also talked to the father of the crewman who was killed, Daniel Ashley, and he seems to be blaming the Navy itself. Can you explain what he's thinking?
Mr. DREW: Yes. It's been an interesting sort of metamorphosis with him, because initially his feeling was--he's a Navy veteran himself--that this was just a horrible accident. And then he started hearing about things like the fact that this hazard wasn't marked on the chart they were using. And since then, we've also found out that the office on shore that gives submarines the basic route they're supposed to follow also didn't look at the other charts; he only looked at this same chart that the guys on the submarine did. And that's got him thinking that, you know, more than just a simple accident. I mean, there were a lot more chances to prevent this.
BLOCK: In light of what happened here, has the Navy changed policies in any way?
Mr. DREW: They've briefed all the submarine officers extensively on what happened and what the mistakes were. They tried to beef up training on navigation, and they're looking at a lot of other possible changes, including doing a better job on making the charts and the routings, and also they're even looking at the hatches and the way they open on those submarines in case this ever happened again.
BLOCK: Christopher Drew, thanks very much.
Mr. DREW: Thank you.
BLOCK: Christopher Drew is a special projects editor with The New York Times.
You can find a photo of the damaged submarine and read the Navy's investigative report at our Web site, npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.