Bush apologizes for Japanese trawler's sinking
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. President George W. Bush apologized personally Tuesday for the accidental sinking by a U.S. nuclear submarine of a Japanese fishing ship carrying high school students, the White House said.
After days of regrets expressed by other top officials, Bush telephoned Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, just as U.S. authorities pondered whether to end a four-day search for survivors of the fishing vessel Ehime Maru. The ship sank Friday after a collision with the submarine USS Greeneville off Honolulu, Hawaii. Nine of the 35 people aboard the trawler were unaccounted for Tuesday.
Bush, who led a moment of silence during a Monday visit to a U.S. military base for the nine still missing, apologized for the incident in the 10-minute call to Mori. Previously, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and U.S. Ambassador Thomas Foley have extended condolences for the trawler's sinking.
"The president expressed his regrets and apologized for the accident and said the United States would do all it can to be of assistance to the Japanese government and the Japanese people," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Rescuers plucked 26 of the Ehime Maru's 35 passengers and crew from the ocean after the collision, which occurred as the Greeneville attempted an emergency surfacing maneuver. But the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy searchers have found no sign of the four 17-year-old fisheries students, two teachers and three crew members still missing.
Nine students from Japan's Uwajima Fisheries High School who survived the sinking returned to Japan on Tuesday after talking to U.S. investigators. Officials in Japan's Ehime Prefecture, where the school is located, told CNN that most of the trawler's 17 surviving crew members will soon be flying home as well.
Bush's call came as Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono said there was "no excuse" for the accident and that he was not yet satisfied with the situation. But he added, "I consider the attitudes of the president, state secretary and defense secretary and the instructions being carried out under their guidance are sincere."
Search efforts continued overnight Monday, and rescuers found the last of the fishing vessel's 10 lifeboats earlier in the day -- but it was empty.
Navy officials have dispatched three deep-sea probes to Hawaii to search the area where the ship sank, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) off Honolulu. The Japanese have urged U.S. officials to salvage the Ehime Maru, which sank in about 1,800 feet (550 meters) of water.
About 30 tearful relatives of those still missing were taken to the scene of the accident aboard a U.S. Navy vessel Monday. The relatives returned four hours later and walked, single file and heads bowed, to a bus, witnesses said.
Surviving students return home
As the surviving students returned to Japan, their fellow students at the Uwajima school, about 670 kilometers (420 miles) southwest of Tokyo, prayed for their missing friends and instructors Tuesday.
It was the first day back in class since the accident, and Vice Principal Kazumitsu Joko told the students that he realized that even now, the events that had happened were "unbelievable" and extremely "painful."
Before heading home, the students told investigators they heard two loud noises before the Ehime Maru sank, National Transportation Safety Board member John Hammerschmidt said.
"At the time of the second loud noise, all the power in the vessel went off and the vessel began to take on water," Hammerschmidt said Monday.
He said students reported oil and water rising from the stairwell up to the middle deck of the 180-foot (55-meter) Ehime Maru, where most of the students were. Students reported they had proceeded to higher decks, he said, before making their way to life rafts.
"A couple of students indicated they were sucked down into the water by the force of the sinking vessel," he said.
The trawler's captain, Hisao Onishi, told investigators that he saw no sign of the Greeneville "until he felt that he hit something, something hit the vessel," Hammerschmidt added.
Trawler sank within minutes
The 360-foot (110-meter) Greeneville was practicing an emergency surfacing maneuver when it struck the vessel. The Ehime Maru sank within minutes.
The maneuver brings the sub to the surface with great force, and its crew is supposed to take several steps to make sure the area is clear before attempting the emergency ascent.
After listening with passive sonar for any ships overhead, the submarine is supposed to come up to periscope depth to survey the horizon for an eight- to 10-mile radius. The crew must plot the location, course and speed of any surface ships.
The submarine then dives to about 400 feet (125 meters), blows its ballast and quickly surfaces at an angle of about 25 degrees.
NTSB officials said the Greeneville made two periscope sweeps before attempting the move, but could not answer why the crew did not see the Japanese ship. Investigators could talk to the submarine's crew as early as Tuesday and plan to test the submarine's sonar arrays and periscope to make sure they were working properly at the time of the accident, Hammerschmidt said.
The latest collision also comes just five months after the U.S. Navy's top official expressed concern about at-sea accidents, and the Navy is also conducting its own investigation.
Adm. Vern Clark, citing six major ship collisions in the previous year, ordered a one-day "safety stand-down" so that the entire fleet could review navigation procedures last September.
Officials with the U.S. Pacific Fleet said 15 civilians and a military observer from another country were aboard the Greeneville at the time. The Navy has reassigned the Greeneville's captain, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, while the investigation is under way.
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