Some details of the damage to the NEW ORLEANS
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Gaping hole detailed in collision of S.D.-based ship and submarine
By Steve Liewer (Contact) Union-Tribune Staff Writer
7:59 p.m. March 27, 2009
SAN DIEGO – A jarring collision with a nuclear submarine in the Strait of Hormuz on March 20 tore a gaping hole in the hull of the San Diego-based amphibious landing dock New Orleans, the Navy said Friday.
The impact created a 16-by-18-foot hole in the New Orleans, which was commissioned in 2007 and was on its first deployment to the Persian Gulf, said Lt. Sean Robertson, a Navy spokesman.
A fuel tank ruptured, and two ballast tanks sustained interior damage. The ship leaked about 25,000 gallons of diesel marine fuel into the water, but Navy aircraft could detect no slick on the surface the next day.
The Hartford, based in New London, Conn., sustained damage to its sail, periscope and port blow plane, Robertson said. Investigators believe it rolled 85 degrees – almost on its side – when the New Orleans struck it.
Fifteen sailors aboard the sub suffered minor injuries, and they have returned to duty.
Navy divers made a preliminary damage assessment this week after the two ships reached Manama, Bahrain, under their own power. Robertson said the full extent of the damage isn't known yet. He didn't specify the cost or length of time for repairs.
The Navy is conducting two investigations: a safety investigation to see how it could prevent similar accidents in the future and a legal inquest to affix responsibility.
The collision occurred about 1 a.m. as the ships operated independently in the eastern end of the V-shaped Strait of Hormuz. About 20 percent of the world's globally traded oil passes through the waterway, which links the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea.
Several Navy veterans said the ships' damage suggests the New Orleans ran over the Hartford from the left side as the submarine was surfacing.
“It's obviously indicative of a very hard hit on the Hartford,” said retired Navy Capt. Jan van Tol, a military analyst with the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C. “It appears to be a test of the quality of construction that they made it back to port.”
Though the hole in the New Orleans' hull is large, it's not nearly big enough to sink the ship, said van Tol, who once skippered the amphibious assault ship Essex.
“It would take a lot of flooding to affect its survivability,” he said.
Van Tol said no amphibious ships carry sonar, so it would have been impossible for the New Orleans to detect the Hartford beneath it.
For that reason, it's a rule of seafaring that submarines are responsible for avoiding ships on the surface, said retired Navy Capt. Sam L. Ward III of Coronado, a former sub commander.
Ward said submarines typically operate at least 130 feet below the surface to stay clear of vessels.
Surfacing is a complex and risky operation, especially in the narrow, shallow and heavily traveled Strait of Hormuz. Ward said submarines typically make a circular sweep at a safe depth, listening carefully for ships nearby before rising above the waves.
“It's a cacophony of noise,” Ward said. “You just have to be very cautious.”