Rescued students returning to Japan as search continues
TOKYO, Japan (CNN) -- Nine Japanese fisheries students who survived a collision between a U.S. nuclear submarine and their trawler were set to return home Monday after answering questions from U.S. investigators.
Meanwhile, U.S. Coast Guard and Navy search teams extended their search for nine people missing from the trawler Ehime Maru. The fishing vessel carried a crew of 35, including several students from the Uwajima Fisheries High School.
"Certainly, the longer that we go without signs that there are still people in the water, the more difficult it becomes for us to continue this," Coast Guard Capt. Steven Newell said late Sunday. "But we have not reached that point yet. We still think there is a chance we might find survivors."
The Ehime Maru sank Friday after being hit by the USS Greeneville, a U.S. Navy submarine practicing an emergency ascent off Honolulu, Hawaii. The trawler had been carrying fisheries students who were learning commercial fishing techniques.
Those missing are four 17-year-old students from the Uwajima school, two of their teachers and three crew members.
The surviving students will be questioned by investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, which is overseeing the accident probe.
U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Monday that "there is no evidence yet that proper procedures were not followed." But she promised a "complete and transparent investigation" into the matter.
"We'll certainly want to talk to the Japanese about what they have in mind," Rice said in an interview with CBS.
According to Moriyuki Kato, governor of Japan's Ehime Prefecture, the surviving students will fly out of Hawaii on Monday and arrive home Tuesday evening local time, accompanied by one of their teachers. Crew members of the Ehime Maru will stay behind for further questioning.
But hopes of finding survivors have dimmed as the search area grew Sunday to 5,000 square miles, roughly the size of the state of Connecticut.
Families fly to Hawaii
Twenty-seven relatives of the trawler's injured and missing crew left Japan for Hawaii on Sunday, where they joined survivors and other Japanese officials who are already on the ground and awaiting news of the continuing search for the missing.
Coast Guard officials also briefed 35 family members and officials who had arrived from Osaka, Japan, to keep vigil with survivors during the search. Families of the missing also asked the U.S. government to salvage the Ehime Maru.
U.S. officials, including Ambassador to Japan Thomas Foley, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have expressed condolences to the Japanese for the accident.
"All I can say to the families and to the people of Japan is that we feel deep regrets about the incident, and we'll do everything humanly possible to determine what actually took place," Rumsfeld told "Fox News Sunday."
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori lodged a protest with the United States, demanding that the ship be raised from the ocean bottom, an official said. Mori, in a meeting Sunday evening with Foley, asked the United States to "use all available means" to reclaim the Ehime Maru, said Kazuhiko Koshikawa, Mori's spokesman.
Newell said that decision was not under the Coast Guard's jurisdiction but added that salvaging the vessel would be difficult given the 1,800-foot (549-meter) depth of the water in the area. However, he added, "there is technology available that will allow us to at least explore the vessel."
U.S. Navy and Coast Guard officials also are considering the families' request to go to the site where the fishing vessel sank.
Trawler sank in about 10 minutes
The accident is the second involving a U.S. submarine and a Japanese ship. In 1981, a U.S. submarine surfaced in the path of a Japanese freighter off the southern tip of Japan, killing two people aboard the freighter.
The Greeneville, a 360-foot (110-meter) attack submarine, was on a routine one-day training mission Friday afternoon when it conducted an emergency surfacing drill -- a maneuver that empties the vessel's ballast tanks and brings it to the surface with great force.
The 180-foot (55-meter) Ehime Maru sank within 10 minutes of the collision, its captain, Hisao Onishi, said Sunday at a news conference in Honolulu.
Before attempting the maneuver, the submarine does periscope and acoustic searches for hazards from a depth of about 60 feet, said Lt. Cmdr. Dave Werner, spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet's submarine force. If the water is found to be clear, the vessel returns to a greater depth and then surges to the surface, Werner said.
NTSB investigators hope to begin questioning the Greeneville's crew and inspecting the vessel on Tuesday. U.S. officials said the incident happened in an area designated on charts as a "submarine operating area" but that the area is not in restricted waters.
Onishi questioned why the survivors had to wait 50 minutes to be rescued. Newell said Sunday the submarine's crew members did all they could to help but that additional efforts would have posed a danger.
"Given the sea conditions and the configuration of the submarine, some other actions like launching boats or pulling people out would have only increased the risk to the people in the rafts," Newell said.
Tokyo Bureau Chief Marina Kamimura and national correspondents Martin Savidge and Eric Horng contributed to this report.
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