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THE GREENEVILLE TRAGEDY

The revelation that civilians were at some controls aboard the U.S. nuclear submarine that sunk a Japanese fishing vessel must surely have been bitter news to the survivors and the families of the victims. Nine Japanese, including four students, remain missing.

No one, however, should jump to conclusions about whether the civilians' presence was responsible for this tragedy. It's much too early in the investigation for that. That said, the families deserve to know, in a timely manner, what occurred.

Questions are being asked about whether Navy crewmen took full safety precautions before surfacing the submarine. Despite checking the ocean's surface with a periscope and using so-called passive sonar, the Navy submarine did not detect the 180-foot vessel.

Two of the civilians on board, interviewed on the "Today" show, said 360-degree periscope searches were made three times shortly before surfacing. If so, how could the Japanese ship have gone undetected?

According to Capt. John Peters, a retired submarine commander based in Honolulu, various factors may have contributed to the collision, none of which included the civilians' presence.

"There are simple tasks that anyone can perform and there is no harm in allowing a guest to perform them (under supervision)," said Peters, who often took civilians out for brief runs when he commanded a submarine.

In his opinion, the causes of the accident will include:

Haze and poor visibility near the water surface.

The color of the Japanese vessel. The ship was white, Peters noted, and likely pointed directly at the submarine. As a result, the vessel likely appeared smaller - perhaps more like a 30-foot vessel, 20 feet high.

"Failure to see the small white boat against a white haze background is the cause of this collision," he said.

Regardless of whether Peters proves right, there are questions that need answers, including whether the U.S. submarine, the Greeneville, reacted quickly enough in rescue efforts.

And even though the presense of civilians at key controls is a public-relations nightmare for the Navy, made worse by the delay in revealing the information, that should not let the presence of civilians become an easy answer as to why this tragedy occurred. So far, there's no evidence that the civilians in the control room contributed to the accident, although investigators have not ruled out the possibility.

We only hope that the Navy is more forthcoming about what it discovers than it was in divulging the news about the civilians in the first place.

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