Greeneville skipper takes the stand
Sub commander makes surprise appearance before court of inquiry
HONOLULU, Hawaii (CNN) -- The captain of a U.S. submarine that collided with a Japanese vessel surprised a Navy court of inquiry Tuesday by taking the stand after his attorney had essentially ruled out the possibility.
USS Greeneville Cmdr. Scott Waddle read a lengthy statement in which he accepted "full responsibility" and then told the court: "Gentlemen, I am ready to take your questions."
As Waddle testified, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori was in Honolulu, preparing to travel to the site 10 miles offshore where the Greeneville, practicing an emergency surfacing maneuver, struck the Ehime Maru.
Twenty-six people from the Ehime Maru, which had been carrying high school students studying commercial fishing, were rescued, but nine -- including four students -- were never found.
Waddle, his executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Pfeifer, and officer of the deck Lt. j.g. Michael Coen could face courts-martial over the February 9 incident.
"I accept full responsibility and accountability for the actions of the crew of the USS Greeneville," Waddle said in his opening statement. "As commanding officer, I am solely responsible for this truly tragic accident, and for the rest of my life I will live with the horrible consequences of my decisions and actions that resulted in the loss of the Ehime Maru."
The commander told the families of the victims that he was "truly sorry for the loss of life and the incalculable grief" they must feel.
Waddle also told the court that its decision to deny him testimonial immunity -- which would prevent his testimony from being used against him in a court-martial -- was "wrong."
"I have done my duty to the best of my ability," he said. "Those mistakes that I made were honest."
The court denied immunity to Waddle on Monday, and his attorney, Charles Gittins, said he would not allow his client to take the stand. But Waddle, who had publicly and repeatedly said during the proceedings that he was responsible for his ship and crew, shocked the court with his appearance on Tuesday.
Crewman: Civilians not distracting
Waddle and his crew were taking the USS Greeneville on a demonstration cruise for 16 civilians at the time of the collision. The submarine hit the Ehime Maru while demonstrating an "emergency blow" -- a rapid rise that saw the sub abruptly break the surface beneath the Japanese ship.
The U.S. Navy's investigation of the incident is nearly complete, and the court of inquiry will make recommendations on the fates of the three officers to Adm. Thomas Fargo, who has 30 days to review them and take final action.
The last witness on Monday was a fire control technician who had told investigators that the civilians on board had distracted him and kept him from reporting to his commanding officers the close presence of a ship just minutes before the accident.
Petty Officer 1st Class Patrick Thomas Seacrest, testifying with immunity, told the court of inquiry Monday that the civilians did not deter him from his duties -- to track surface ships by sonar and report to his commander -- but that he had been "a little bit" lazy.
Seacrest, a 14-year Navy veteran, said he had been tracking the Ehime Maru but that his attention was distracted by a new contact on the radar screen.
After hearing Coen and Waddle say they had seen no ships during a periscope check before the sub surfaced, Seacrest said he assumed he had been wrong about the ship's location and "outspotted" the Maru contact, changing its distance from 2,000 yards to 9,000 yards in the computer to reflect his belief that the vessel was farther away.
But Navy counsel Capt. Bruce E. MacDonald said computer logging records showed that Seacrest actually changed the position 15 to 30 seconds after the collision. Asked if he could explain the discrepancy, Seacrest responded, "I can't explain it, sir."
Seacrest also testified that he failed to maintain a physical chart of sonar contacts, despite standing orders by his skipper, and he said he never told officers he had stopped.
No immunity for Greeneville skipper
At the close of testimony on Monday, Coen offered an emotional apology to the families of the victims.
"I humbly apologize," Coen said. "Although I cannot comprehend the unimaginable grief you must feel, I want you to know that you are in my thoughts and prayers at all times and you will be for the rest of my life."
Attorneys for Pfeifer gave the court a written statement from their client, but its contents were not revealed.
Waddle, who apologized personally to the families of the collision's victims earlier this month, had asked for testimonial immunity from the court -- meaning his testimony could not be used against him in a court martial proceeding.
But the Navy denied the request on Monday, saying the court did not need the skipper's testimony to determine what happened.
The skipper's attorney, Charles Gittins, said his client would not testify without immunity.
Waddle: 'I am accountable'
Waddle has repeatedly stated openly that he was responsible for everything that went on under his command, and has acknowledged that the accident will end his 18-year career in the Navy.
Before court on Monday -- and before the Navy denied his request for immunity -- Waddle said he would say the same thing if he were to testify.
"The first words I will say to the court will be that fact: That I am accountable and responsible for the accident that led to the tragic collision and sinking of the Ehime Maru," Waddle said on his way into court.
"None of my crew members should be accountable or responsible for that accident," he said.
CNN Correspondent Martin Savidge contributed to this report.
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