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Sub damaged in fatal crash rejoins fleet in S.D.
By Steve Liewer
Union-Tribune Staff Writer
2:00 a.m. July 5, 2009
Almost two weeks after the Navy submarine San Francisco struck an undersea mountain, Dan and Vicki Ashley visited a dry dock in Guam to view the shredded bow of the boat on which their 24-year-old son died.
Even in their grief, the couple marveled that a sub so badly damaged could have limped 360 miles back to port.
“We said: 'How did she survive? Why didn't she sink to the bottom?' ” Dan Ashley said last week, reflecting on the Jan. 8, 2005, accident. “I told the admiral, 'We'll see victory when we see that submarine back in service.' ”
The impact tossed most of the San Francisco's 137 crewmen around a cramped interior filled with jagged edges. Ninety-seven were injured, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Joseph “Joey” Ashley – who had stopped for a smoke break in the lower engine room – suffered a fatal skull fracture.
Four and a half years later, the San Francisco has rejoined the fleet in its new home port of San Diego. It took an unprecedented repair that involved cutting off the submarine's front end and transplanting about 50 feet – more than 1 million pounds of metal – from the bow of a retired sister sub, the Honolulu.
The price tag: $134 million to fix a boat that easily could have sunk.
“It's a testament to the robust design,” said Capt. Brett Genoble, commander of San Diego-based Submarine Squadron 11. “It's tough for me to believe you can have a more significant collision than that.”
The San Francisco arrived at Point Loma Naval Base in mid-April, then returned to sea for drills almost immediately. Now it's back pierside while workers upgrade many of the 28-year-old warship's electronics systems.
Nearly all of the crew members who survived the accident have moved on to other posts or left the Navy. But Petty Officers Robert Hutson and Andrew Tillman have stayed with the San Francisco through the tragedy and reconstruction. Both extended their tours so they could return to sea with it.
“I just wanted to see it through,” said Hutson, 34, a petty officer first class from Cleveland.
He and Tillman joined the Navy in 2004 and boarded the sub at its home port in Guam in December of that year, just a few weeks before it left on the ill-fated cruise.
They joined a boat that had suffered a troubled reputation because of subpar inspections before Cmdr. Kevin Mooney took over as skipper in December 2003.
“He came in and kind of turned the boat around,” said Tillman, 29, of Augusta, Ga. “It really put us on the map.”
As a reward, the crew earned a liberty cruise to Brisbane, Australia. The vessel departed Jan. 7, 2005, and headed full speed toward the Caroline Islands southeast of Guam.
At 11:42 a.m. the following day, some of the sailors had begun to line up outside the mess deck for a lunch of hamburgers, french fries and baked beans.
The duty watch had just changed, and Hutson was in the machinery room going over paperwork with a shipmate.
Then the boat hit a bump.
“We had the first little shudder, and then a second one,” Hutson said. “The second hit, I said, 'We're in trouble.' ”
The San Francisco, cruising at 38 mph, ground to a halt, throwing Hutson several feet and slamming him against some machinery. Two officers fell in front of him.
In the control room, Tillman was studying reference manuals on a computer. The impact slammed him into a nearby post as lockers flew open.
“At first I thought it wasn't that big a deal,” Tillman said. “Then I felt my head. It was bloody.”
The impact crushed the San Francisco's sonar dome and punched holes in the forward ballast tanks. But the inner hull, which contained the crew compartment and nuclear reactors, held fast.
The crew initiated an “emergency blow,” which released huge amounts of high-pressure air into the ship's main ballast tanks. After an agonizing pause, the boat slowly rose 525 feet to the surface.
A shipmate took Tillman to the mess deck, where a corpsman and an officer with medical training set up a makeshift aid station amid the blood and debris.
“Food was everywhere, plates, broken dishes,” Tillman said. “I remember seeing people unconscious on the tables.”
One of them was Ashley, a sailor with West Virginia roots who was known as “Cooter,” after a character from television's “Dukes of Hazzard.”
Word quickly spread among the crew that Ashley was in rough shape. Someone plugged in a CD of Hank Williams Jr., Ashley's favorite musician. Tillman, who escaped with a mild concussion, held his shipmate's hand and prayed for him.
The tight quarters made it difficult to get Ashley off the boat to a helicopter that could take him to a hospital in Guam. Crewmen spent the night removing railings and lockers to clear a path to the only hatch considered safe to open.
The next morning, they threaded Ashley's stretcher through small compartments and up narrow ladders, but the bridge hatch wouldn't open far enough to let it out. Some of his shipmates cursed and cried in frustration.
Cooter died without regaining consciousness, 25½ hours after the accident.
It took two days for the San Francisco to crawl back to Guam. There, the crew – and later the Ashleys – first saw the astonishing damage to the ship's outer hull.
After patchwork repairs, the sub eventually went to the naval shipyard in Bremerton, Wash. The Navy resisted scrapping the San Francisco, commissioned in 1981, because its nuclear reactors had finished an expensive midlife refueling process less than three years earlier.
The Naval Sea Systems Command instead decided to scrap the Honolulu, which was four years younger but had not been refueled. It devised the bow transplant, which involved grafting the Honolulu's sonar dome and three ballast tanks onto the front of the San Francisco. Then workers painstakingly connected pipes, cables and control systems before welding the parts together.
A Navy investigation into the crash showed that the San Francisco's crew and the mission's shore-based planners had relied on a single set of charts commonly used by submariners that did not show the mountain. They did not consult other maps that indicated an undefined hazard in the area.
Mooney and five others received reprimands or demotions. Eighteen crewmen received awards for their heroic efforts to save the boat and crew.
For some sailors, the psychological wounds from the near disaster did not heal easily.
“It had a pretty traumatic effect,” Tillman said. “We had some people who thought they were OK. Then we had a drill. They heard all the alarms and they'd be a little twitchy.”
Like Tillman, Hutson decided to stay in the Navy. He said he felt cheated out of a trip Down Under.
“I want to go travel around the world,” Hutson said. “I want to go to Australia – on a boat.”
The Ashleys met Tillman, Hutson and the rest of the crew in April when the Navy flew the couple to San Diego to greet the San Francisco after its voyage from the repair yard in Bremerton.
“I was laughing with joy, having to hide my tears because I didn't want people to see me cry,” Dan Ashley said. “She came in under her own power, standing tall in the water, saying, 'Look at me – I'm good as new.' ”
Standing on the pier, he knew Joey would have wanted him to be there.
“That sub will always be our boat,” he said. “But I wish my son were still on board.”