Attrition: 90 Percent Of The Crew Was Injured

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September 19, 2008:  Three and a half years after the American submarine USS San Francisco hit the top of an underwater mountain, the medical report has been released. The collision, of a sub moving at over 50 kilometers an hour, smashed the sonar equipment that fills the bow (front) of the sub, as the boat careened off to one side. The sub's sudden change of speed and direction was unexpected by the crew. Thus 90 percent of the 138 man crew were injured. One sailor later died. Most of the injuries were minor, but a third of the crew had serious problems (nine had broken bones, two had dislocated shoulders, nine had concussions and 23 had cuts). Fortunately, the two sailors with medical training were not injured, and were able to prevent all but one of the injuries (a bad concussion) from getting worse. The navy is used its study of the San Francisco medical situation to make changes in how subs are equipped, and sailors trained, to deal with large scale injuries. The navy also noted that 15 percent of the crew still had psychological problems months after the accident. This is not unusual for sailors involved in a large scale accident.

But there were other reasons for poor morale among the San Francisco sailors. The sea mount the sub hit had been spotted by survey satellites in 1999 and 2004, but the intelligence agency responsible, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said it didn't have the money to update naval charts. Neither did the navy, or anyone else. Thus American submarines were allowed to continue moving around amidst all manner of uncharted hazards. Instead, the sailors on duty when the San Francisco hit the sea mount were punished for not having taken more frequent depth soundings (which would have indicated they might be approaching an obstacle), or consulting another map (than the one originally used) that showed a possible sea mount five kilometers from where they actually collided with one.

The navy held the crew responsible for the collision. Six members of the crew were given non-judicial (no court martial) punishment for their actions, or inactions, that caused the accident. At the time (January, 2005), the sub was traveling at high speed and at 500 feet depth. The six sailors punished included officers, senior NCOs and lower ranking sailors. Punishment ranged from letters of reprimand to reduction in rank. The charges were hazarding a vessel and dereliction of duty. The investigators concluded that these six crewmen could have detected the approaching sea mount and taken evasive action if they had followed proper procedures. The captain of the sub was earlier relieved of command.

At the same time, the navy also gave awards, for helping save the submarine after the collision, to eighteen NCOs and two officers. These included two Meritorious Service Medals, nine Commendation Medals, four Achievement Medals and five Letters Of Commendation.

The lack of courts martial indicates that the navy didn't feel it had strong enough evidence for that approach, which is more like a jury trial, and demands more compelling evidence. The non-judicial punishment hurts, but does not destroy, the career of a submariner. This is because the navy has a hard time recruiting qualified people for this kind of work. The navy could have held one or more courts martial, but apparently were convinced that just using the non-judicial punishment would get the matter behind them with a minimum of fuss and penalty. The charges in the non-judicial hearings were of the you should have seen this coming and been more cautious variety. Anyone who knows anything about nuclear submarines, and their crews, knows that these are the most cautious and deliberate sailors in the fleet. Eventually, more details of these proceedings, and the collision itself, will come out.

 


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