Friday, December 29, 2006

USS Minneapolis-St. Paul Submarine Tragedy Avoidable Next Time?

A US Navy Submarines Forces Atlantic officials told 13News, "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family members of the sailors who died today."

We honestly do not know yet the accompanying factors leading to the deaths of our two, unidentified brothers. Since the accident resulted in two deaths and the failure of two additional sailors to journey the Atlantic, we should expect three officers' careers to be adversely impacted by this event. The executive officer, the commanding officer and the officer of the deck are at automatic risk of admonishment, to say the least.

Small, inflatable dinghies operated by police escorts (due to security demands for U.S. subs) picked up the four, according to Officer Provan, spokesman for Devon and Cornwall police. NOTE: Since small dinghies operated well enough in waters rough to recover four submariners, it should be evident that deckhanding on submarines is akin to logrolling. A submarine on the surface is essentially a large log with a rudder that often loses steerage in rough conditions. This hazard has been well known to submariners for at least the last century.

Some questions immediately come to mind:

1) Submarines will usually submerge as soon as practicable for reasons of stealth, safety and mission. Why was the submarine not pre-rigged for dive at the relative safety of the dock? [Yes, valve and vent lineups, etc. can be down later, closer to actual dive time].

2) Submarine sailors over six feet tall have higher centers of gravity that potentially interefere with otherwise superb balance on rolling decks. How many of the sub's 4 deckhands who washed overboard were over six feet or taller? Were shorter deckhands spared? Shorter sailors make better deckhands due to their lower centers of gravity and natural balancing ability than taller males.

3) Were the four sailors involved in an unusual, mission-related activity? For instance, were they attempting to secure an unusual hull attachment? [This we will probably never learn].

Above thoughts are more than hypothetical. Certainly the sea state (47 mph gusts) beyond the safety of Plymouth harbor's large, concrete breakwater was known to someone on the submarine before its departure. Sean Brooks, a coast guard officer, had this description, "Because of the violent weather, they were frequently plunged below the waves," he said. "It then transpired that there were already two other guys in the water."

The two survivors would probably not have been rescued as quickly had it not been for the police escort, said Officer Provan. Imagine that. The small, inflatable dinghy, not a tug or helicopter, saved the day!


At 30 December, 2006 03:07, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too am asking questions about this, it should not have happened. As an experienced lines supervisor, I would have put my men belowdecks and taken the @ss chewing for not having topside completely rigged for dive.
god bless to their families.

At 30 December, 2006 14:08, Blogger Vigilis said...

rebootinit, that is very interesting. Thanks for your comment.

At 31 December, 2006 10:32, Anonymous Anonymous said...

reminds me of being caught in a typhoon in hong kong harbor. we did not lose anyone, but being a member of the topside party we spent more time in the water than on deck. deck cleats do work. weather does happen, subs are dangerous. diving the aft escape trunk while partial submerged while in the harbor is not exactly safe, but you do what need to be done. once you make the decision to get underway in bad weather you can not stop when the weather get worse and go home to mom.

At 31 December, 2006 11:25, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was working in the dockyard at plymouth over the christmas period and we were very suprised she left port in such conditions with men on the casing the weather was atrocious at the time there were police inflatables present but there were also larger police boats present one craft named opal i believe this was the one that saved retuned all four to waiting ambulances sadly two could not be revived despite brave efforts by ministy of defence police who attempted to,

At 31 December, 2006 11:50, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds as if it might have been a small boat handling party...possibly transferring the pilot off. I spent many a maneuvering watches topside and conducted many small boat transfers. Any substantial wind or sea state made the operations risky, at best.

ETCS(SS) (ret)

At 31 December, 2006 17:09, Blogger Vigilis said...

ETCS(SS), An excellent observation. Apparently, this may have been the case indeed. The Port of Plymouth Pilotage Service is operated by the CATTEWATER HARBOUR COMMISSION for commercial and leisure traffic. Since you knew that, I take it that you are one of the few Yank submariners who have actually been there, and the pilot services are availed as well by units of the U.S. submarine force.

Anonymous (second) thank you for your most perceptive, firsthand insights.

Anonymous (third) and thank you for correcting the British press as regards the actual rescue vessel (not a dinghy). Now, we wait to see how long it will take before the journalists issue any correction. I am certainly not holding my breath for it. -Vigilis

At 01 January, 2007 09:10, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The name of the Senior Chief who died is ETCS (SS) Thomas Higgins. He is listed on the ship's website as the Chief of the Boat (COB).

At 01 January, 2007 09:55, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Losing the COB on the boat, that had to be very rough water and waves. For the non submariners the COB, Chief of the Boat is the senior enlisted leader of the entire boat. He usually has over 20 years of experience, what a tremendous loss to the boat and the families. God bless. Small boat transfers are always shaky. I have done this many times over the years and get from the small boat to the sub is always a challenge. Sometime it just a jump on to a jacob's ladder slung over the side of the boat. You time your jump with the wave patterns and hope for the best. Hard to believe they would be doing that in a storm.

At 01 January, 2007 19:21, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike J. Holtz, 30 was an amazing friend, brother, son and father. The type of man that emulated the American spirit. He loved his job in the NAVY and all of those he served with him.

He comes from an amazing family, and raised by exceptional parents. Last night (New Years Eve) we held a celebration of life in the memory of Mike Holtz and Thomas Higgins. Instead of the traditional New Year toast, 25 close freinds and family took a moment to speak of their life with a toast, and a moment of silence.

We thank all of you who have been supportive, both military and non-military. It is a very trying time with lots of questions. Together we will all go on and thats what Mike would have wanted.

Mike and Tom may you be resting in GOD's eternal kingdom.

At 02 January, 2007 03:08, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, thoughts and prayers to families of the deceased.
Second, a few responses to your 3 questions:
1. The key rig for dive (topside) items on a 688 cannot be rigged pierside because they are used for linehandling (rollable cleats, hatches, hatch rings, etc.). This is very unlikely a significant factor.
2. Topside personnel are chosen based on experience and watchbill availability (e.g., you wouldn't pick your top radar operator, ANAV, etc.). Submarine crews are fairly streamlined as it is. Except for extreme cases (6' 6" - which is extremely rare on subs), height is not a factor. I would delete that whole comment from your article as it is pretty silly and dilutes some otherwise insightful commentary.
3. Very unlikely, any "unusual hull attachments" would have been removed prior to underway as you suggest in comment #1. Hull attachments and tugs don't mix very well...

Give the ship some credit here. Plymouth is a very challenging port, particularly since the tides only allow transit twice per day during a one hour window. Most likely the Pilot transfer took longer than expected and when the ship cleared the seawall at the harbor entrance the channel seas came up faster than expected and caught them by surprise. Given the lack of maneuvering room, there may have been little the ship could have done once they got to that point. The real questions will come down to what the ship knew about the weather, what the UK pilots and liaison recommended, what operations were driving the underway, and what the plan was to safely conduct the transfer.

Although there will likely be repercussions, also recommend you remove your prejudgment about what will happen to the CO, XO, and OOD - they are all good men who were trying to do a tough job under challenging circumstances.

At 02 January, 2007 13:36, Blogger Vigilis said...

To Anonymous above: Do you really consider my comments silly? How would you know what factors were significant or insignificant, are you one of the two survivors or a witness?

Some fairly seasoned folks, including 688 sailors, have commented in rather colorful agreements that the tragic loss of two valuable submariners is probably avoidable in the future. That was the stated point of this posting, was it not?

You cannot argue credibly about the role of anatomical centers of gravity unless you stipulate that the two sailors lost (especially the PO2) were under 6-feet in height. You fail to do so. You also fail to mention that submarine enlisted crew were ever tested for superior agility and balance(curved, rolling decks and constant ladder climbing).

Regarding my statement that "...the executive officer, the commanding officer and the officer of the deck automatic are at automatic risk of admonishment, to say the least", time will never dsiclose any admonishments, will it? Those matters would be private, sealed and something even you would never be free to disclose, assuming you ever learned such facts.

Thank you immensely for offering the official Navy viewpoint to this discussion, Sir, Madame or Captain.

At 02 January, 2007 14:10, Blogger Vigilis said...

Adrian Koumonduros (Friend), thank you for adding your humanizing and heartfelt sentiments to our remembrance of these talented, stalwart souls.

Accident investigation is intended to help develop safe practices reducing potentially hazardous conditions when that is a prudent option. An exhaustive accident investigation can become a lasting tribute to our brother submariners. - Vigilis

At 03 January, 2007 01:36, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My baby brother is part of the crew on the minneapolis-st. paul. I first want to express how unbelievably proud and honored I am to be his sister and friend. My family found out about the tragedy via a newspape article...imagine our shock and devisation. Hours of not knowing was indescribable. The only ones who can understand this herendious feeling are those who went through it this past weekend. After five years of dealing with deployments and missing my baby brother, for the first time his job and the risks involved became "real" for the first time. I will NEVER NEVER forget that feeling and it is now forever a part of me.
I need the families/friends of the men who lost their lives that day to know that I am beyond sad and so very sorry for your loss.'You are ALWAYS in my thoughts and prayers and your loved ones will forever be missed. I also want you to know that myself and my family appriciate the sacrafice that your loved ones made so selflessly.
Please take a moment of your time to say a prayer for these familes.
God bless these families and the crewman of the minneapolis-st.paul...
may God be with you ALWAYS!!

At 03 January, 2007 13:27, Blogger Vigilis said...

Thank you, Anonymous, for presenting your too often overlooked perspective on the inherent sacrifices made by submarine crewmen and their families.

As you say,"God bless these families and the crewman of the minneapolis-st.paul...
may God be with you ALWAYS!!"
- Vigilis

At 13 January, 2007 04:22, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My son is on the MSP and was on the sail when everything happened. We got word of he tragedy in a phone call from my Mother-in-Law. I echo anno. message of Jan.3. I will never forget the hours of endless waiting until we found out he was safe. Michael Holtz was a rabid Steelers fan as is my son. COB Higgins was so genuinely liked by the crew. We are grieving deeply , the crew are getting thru this together. Secondarily, I grieve for the loss of innocence among the youth of the crew who had never seen death up close and personal before. Today 2 fine sailors will be buried. With them go lost innocence and many tears for their passing. The crew lost a superb mentor in the COB and the Higgins family a fine man. Michael will be terribly missed by his family and shipmates.
Yes, I know the whole story and say now Captian Ruff would never have put his men in harm's way as I see suggested on some other blogs scattered across the internet. Mother Nature is a treacherous lady sometimes. This time she was ruthless.
Rest In Peace Cob Higgins and Michael. Our broken hearts will never forget you.
With Many Tears,
Mom of an MSP sailor.

At 13 January, 2007 20:09, Blogger Vigilis said...

Mom of an MSP sailor, please accept my full faith and confidence that you are correct about Captian Ruff. He would never have put his men in harm's way.
And thank you for your comment. Truth be told, U.S. submarine COs have a more difficult ship's command than any other USN CO short of a nuclear aircraft carrier. Shortly, I expect to make this point in another posting. - Vigilis

At 13 January, 2007 23:16, Blogger buriedmyfriendtoday said...

Here is what i will tell you. I was at the funeral of one Michael J. Holtz today, my friend, my shipmate and my brother, there has never been a more painful weekend for me in my entire adult life,he was kind and fun and the best kind of friend to have, in that he would always put someone elses' needs before his own. What i know about the accident is this, i do not care what happened. I buired one of the best friends i will ever have today and nothing will bring him back, Walt, Rosemary, Brian, Greg, Steve, Joe and Miss Sue, i just met most of you this week, but your love of michael is inspiring and true, i am so sorry for your loss and can only tell you that i am a better person and friend to the people that i am close to today because of mike, i love him and will miss him greatly. MICHAEL J HOLTZ, i will miss you like i would miss my own brother. RIP my friend.

At 21 January, 2007 13:22, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A tragedy that was clearly avoidable. As a former submarine CO, I can not imagine getting underway from a liberty port with winds gusting to 47 mph. In today's navy, no mission justifies taking on that kind of risk. I learned this lesson as a JO on a submarine exiting a port in Alaska when a sudden storm swept in with blinding snow and winds in excess of 30 mph. When we left the protected waters (the harbor is surrounded by large mountains) the fury of the sea was instantly upon us. Having experienced that I was forever extremely cautious at leaving my men on the deck when we exited the protection of the harbor. They were obviously trying to get the pilot off the boat and exited the protection afforded by the breakwater. They should have gotten him off when they cast off the tugs and had the pilot talk them out of the port over the radio while the crew was safely belowdecks. Yes the submarine CO has immense responsibility on his shoulders... the lives of 150 men. May God bless the families of fallen and the crew of this submarine.

At 21 January, 2007 19:29, Blogger Vigilis said...

Anonymous former submarine CO, thank you for your comment, which has apparently been the conclusion of the Navy's investigation and is now endorsed by Molten Eagle.

At first, the the severity of CDR Rush's removal seemed extremely harsh compared to the Coast Guard Cutter Healey's Captain's punishment (the same) for two fatalitites and his admitted oversigts.

Consistency counts for a lot however, and the punishment meets the norms for the Navy.

As you say, "May God bless the families of fallen and the crew of this submarine."

At 23 February, 2007 18:40, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was a member of the pre-commisioning crew and a plank owner of the commisioning crew of the SSN 708. I am honored to be able to say that I was a part of this. I personally have been in this situation (small boat transfer) several times. There are measures in place as standard operating procedures that should have prevented this great loss. As a manuvering watch lookout I watched the boarding and unboarding of pilots numerous times, but never in the rough weather discribed. My heart goes out to the families and crew of our fallen brothers.

At 23 February, 2007 21:51, Blogger Vigilis said...

Anonymous (23 February, 2007 15:40), and so we gather. Thank you very much for the addition of your personal experience and comments.

The tragedy was indeed avoidable, and responsible parties have paid with their careers and lives.

Each may be forgiven and thanked for his service and sacrifice, however, as no human is ever without an error rate of 2 percent.

At 05 December, 2007 01:53, Blogger Roscoe said...

I found this blog as I was fumbling around online. Reading over everything here, about this tragic event brought back a lot of feelings and memories that I remember about the days surrounding the accident. This prompted me to write how a feel about the event as the 1 year anniversary gets closer. Please check out my take on this event here:


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