The USS Greeneville: A 'Waterfall' of Mistakes?

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Relatives of those lost in the USS Greeneville accident pay their respects

The Navy doesn't hold public inquiries very often. But after the deadly February 9 collision between the submarine USS Greeneville and the Japanese fishing boat Ehime Maru, which left nine Japanese passengers missing and presumed dead, it quickly became clear that nothing less than a full-scale inquiry would do.

Monday, the Navy court convened in Honolulu to hear the testimony of Rear Admiral Charles Griffiths, who was not on board the sub at the time of the collision but is leading the preliminary investigation into the deadly crash. What Griffiths told the court is damning, not only for the Navy's practice of bringing civilians on board working vessels, but for the officers in command of the sub as well.

According to Griffiths, the presence of 16 civilian guests was a serious distraction for the crew of the Greeneville, who should have been concentrating on a rapid surfacing drill, and the demands of entertaining the civilians apparently threw the submarine's rigid procedural schedule dangerously off-target. There were also mechanical problems from the outset; Griffiths reports that a screen meant to display sonar readings to the commander and others on deck was not working, but when officers discovered the malfunction, they decided to put off repairs until returning to port.

Of course, human error may have played a significant role in the collision as well. After an extended on-board lunch with the civilians, the crew was left with little time to perform a critical periscope check, Griffiths said, and just before the collision, the sonar room was left without its supervisor, who was assigned to be a "tour guide" instead of watching over a trainee manning the sonar display. The continuing inquiry could have serious repercussions for several officers on board the sub, including Cmdr. Scott Waddle, who last week spoke exclusively to TIME about the collision — and the aftermath.

TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson has been keeping an eye on the hearings, and offers his take on the Navy's latest public relations disaster. Were there any surprises in this first day of testimony?

Thompson: Not really. Basically, it's looking less and less like this collision was an accident and more and more like it stemmed from negligence. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we can see that there was an amalgam of individual mistakes — which on their own might not have amounted to anything, but all together, they create a waterfall effect that ends in disaster.

There were so many things, like the sonar malfunction, the emphasis on rushing through the procedures — individual things that were fixable when they happened. If a certain sonar display wasn't working, for example, maybe the trip should have been canceled. If the morning was drawn out, and there wasn't enough time to go through the afternoon's activities, maybe someone should have said something to that effect.

This wasn't purely a function of fate, but rather a tragic collection of small mistakes.

Will one naval officer take the primary blame for the collision?

Thompson: In recent years, top officers have been taking less individual responsibility for disasters on their watch — with the USS Cole, for example, or when the Marines hit the ski gondola in Italy — but this may force the services to take another look at culpability. At this point, we know that Commander Waddle's Navy career is over, along with those of several of his subordinates. The only question now is whether they'll face court-martial proceedings. We'll have to keep watching to find out — it's too early to say just yet.