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Originally published Sunday, January 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Danger zone wrong in crash of submarine USS San Francisco

Satellite images of the area where a nuclear submarine grounded two weeks ago clearly show a wedge-shape undersea mountain that stretches...

The New York Times

Satellite images of the area where a nuclear submarine grounded two weeks ago clearly show a wedge-shape undersea mountain that stretches across more than a mile of a desolate expanse of the South Pacific.

Defense officials said the mountain, which rises within 100 feet of the surface, was not on the navigation charts that the Navy uses.

One sailor was killed and 60 were injured when the submarine, the San Francisco, smashed into the mountain, or a reef jutting out from it, at high speed Jan. 8.

The satellite images, taken in 1999 and early 2004, suggest the mountain is part of a larger range of undersea volcanoes and reefs and show it sits more than three miles northwest of the nearest possible hazard on the charts.

Scientists who have studied the images said it is likely the submarine's officers thought they had safely skirted the danger zone — with the vessel about 500 feet below the surface — only to crash head-on into the mountain.

David Sandwell, a geophysics professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., said it also was possible the danger zone — an oval area described as containing "discolored water" — was a mistaken and poorly located reference to the undersea mountain.

Defense Department officials said that the notation dated to the early 1960s and that it probably came from a surface ship that had detected murky water.

The discoloration could have been a temporary problem, such as an oil slick, or a hazy indication of an undersea structure.

But the satellite images do not show any obstacles in that danger zone. And because it was hard for ships to get a precise fix on their coordinates before satellites came into wide use, Sandwell said, it is likely the murky water was an early sign of the undersea mountain and the sailors who detected it simply charted it in the wrong location.

"It seems relatively clear that that's what happened," he said.

Navy officials said the San Francisco, a nuclear-attack submarine, crashed into the mountain 360 miles southeast of Guam on its way to Brisbane, Australia, a popular liberty port for sailors. Its bow was severely damaged, and 23 sailors were hurt too badly to stand watch as the vessel limped back to Guam.

The exact location of the crash remains classified. But the undersea mountain shows up on the satellite images at a latitude of 7 degrees, 45.1 minutes north and a longitude of 147 degrees, 12.6 minutes east.

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The Navy is looking into the crash, which occurred in a little-used area that has never been systematically charted.

Last week, the Navy reassigned the vessel's captain while investigators examine whether he bears any blame.

The main chart on the submarine was prepared by another agency within the Defense Department in 1989. Officials at the charting office said they never had the resources to use the huge volumes of satellite data to improve their charts.

The submarine was traveling at more than 30 knots — close to its top speed — when the accident occurred.

Besides relying on charts, submarines also receive fixes from navigation satellites and take soundings of water depths. According to officials, the San Francisco's officers said they took a sounding four minutes before the crash, and it indicated the vessel was still in 6,000 feet of water.

It is possible that the San Francisco could have detected the undersea mountain if it had used its active sonar system.

But since early in the Cold War, submarines have avoided using active sonar, which emits loud pings that can give away their location. Even on training missions, they practice operating silently and rely on passive sonar systems that can only detect ships and other objects making noise.

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