Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Lost Sailors

HT from Bubblehead:

The Navy is investigating what happened in Plymouth Sound on Dec. 29 as the Minneapolis-St. Paul left England's Devonport Naval Base. Because the inquiry isn't finished, Navy officials said they cannot provide many details about the incident.

The men died performing a routine but risky task - transferring a harbor pilot back to his boat. Crews practice it frequently, but a former captain said it never can be totally safe, particularly in bad weather.

Lt. Cmdr. Chris Loundermon, a spokesman for the Navy's Atlantic submarine fleet in Norfolk, said the Los Angeles-class

submarine had been scheduled to leave Plymouth around the 29th after a week in port during the Christmas holiday.

Loundermon said he could not say whether the submarine left early to avoid bad weather moving in.

"Those are all the things the investigation is going to look into," he said. "Did they have to leave? If they didn't have to leave, why did they?"

About the time the departing submarine was transferring the harbor pilot, the winds were heavy and seas were high.

Four men on deck at the time - all wearing life vests and tethered to the sub - were washed overboard.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael J. Holtz, a sonar technician, and Senior Chief Petty Officer Thomas Higgins, an electronics technician, were pronounced dead at a British hospital. Two were rescued with minor injuries.

Higgins was chief of the boat, the highest-ranking enlisted sailor on the submarine.

Entering or leaving port while transferring a harbor pilot onto or off a submarine is a complex maneuver made more difficult in bad weather or in the dark.

"Nothing's routine," said Force Master Chief Petty Officer Dean Irwin, the top enlisted submariner in the Navy. "It's an evolution that has risk associated with it."

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