A head-on collision at 40 miles per hour is, by any standard, a bad accident. But a head-on collision in a submarine 525 feet deep in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is a disaster.
That's exactly what happened to the USS San Francisco last January, when it struck an undersea mountain in one of the worst accidents in modern naval history. How does a submarine run into a mountain? And whose fault was it?
The crew of the USS San Francisco tell how they survived 52 harrowing hours at sea.
After the accident, the entire bow of the USS San Francisco, a $1 billion, fast-attack nuclear submarine, was shattered.
"We took a full frontal hit," says Cmdr. Kevin Mooney, who was the submarine's captain on the day of the crash. "I think we came pretty close [to losing that submarine]. I do accept full responsibility for the grounding of San Francisco. I expected the Navy to hold me accountable for this horrible accident and they did."
Mooney was a rising star in the submarine force, hand-picked to skipper the San Francisco on its peacetime mission of sneaking around the Pacific and spying on other countries and their navies. In the 13 months since he'd taken command, he'd won accolades for his leadership.
Then, four months ago, Mooney and his crew were sent on a high-speed run from their home port on the Pacific Island of Guam south to Australia for a port visit. They were passing through the Caroline Islands, at a depth of 525 feet, when 7,000 tons of steel with 137 souls on board came to a crashing halt.
"The noise was deafening, initially, [like] an explosion," says Mooney, who was eating lunch in the wardroom. He was thrown across the table. "My first thought was that I was going to die."
"All of a sudden, you find yourself slammed into something and the whole world is shaking," says senior chief Danny Hager, who was in the sub's control room and smashed into the instrument panel. "Immediately, I knew we hit something and it was going to be bad."
"I remember just bodies everywhere," says Petty Officer Brian Barnes, who was standing in the lunch line and was thrown to the deck. "Broken glass, stepping on plates, your shipmates moaning because they're in pain, yelling."
"We had a lot of people thrown, you know, about 20, 25 feet. Those were the guys that were injured the worst, because, you know, there's not very many soft things on a submarine," says Hager.
Those still able began to take stock of the damage. Flooding is what every member of the crew dreaded most. At 525 feet deep, water pressure is 16 times what it is at the surface. If there were any serious leaks in the inner hull, water would come rushing in and doom the ship within minutes.
"The enemy is out there and it's sea water and it's trying to get in," says Mooney.
The crew of the San Francisco performed what's called an emergency blow, pumping air into the sub's ballast tanks to float it to the surface. All eyes turned to Hager, who was monitoring the depth gauge.
"I told them 525 feet 0 acceleration. And I'm waiting, you know, 5 seconds, 10 seconds, I don't know how long it was, you know, 525 feet, 0 acceleration," says Hager. "And it was just absolutely silence in control because they're waiting for me to report that we were accelerating upwards."
What they didn't know at the time was most of their front ballast tanks were destroyed.
"So the forward tanks were ruptured," says Martin. "And that air you were trying to pump into them was just going out into the ocean."
"Just going out into the ocean," says Hager.
Finally, air filled the rear tanks, which slowly began pulling the sub up.
"You could feel the pregnant pause, and then almost the relief when I said 500 feet acceleration upwards," says Hager.
Mooney says it took a few minutes to get the sub to the surface. But that was just the beginning.
"The crew had to get that ship home. An injured crew; a beaten crew," says Mooney. "I think the crew was terrified. There was blood all over the decks."
Ninety-eight of the 137 crew members had been injured, about 20 of them seriously enough that they could no longer man their watch stations. Petty Officer Joey Ashley was the worst off with a massive head injury.
"Basically, he'd flown about 20-25 feet, and struck a pump, head first, and he was in serious critical condition," says Hager.
Mooney radioed for help, but the San Francisco was hundreds of miles from home and there were no ships nearby. Its bow was crushed; its propeller bobbing in and out of the water. And the crew wasn't sure they could keep it from going down.
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