Ships 2

USS San Francisco

Ships 3

Bow Smashed

Submarine San Francisco Hit A Mountain

By James Donahue

The U. S. Navy’s nuclear powered attack submarine San Francisco was nearly sunk and left severely damaged when it slammed into the side of an uncharted undersea mountain during maneuvers in the South Pacific on January 8, 2005. One seaman was fatally wounded and several other crew members were hurt.

The 29-year-old San Francisco was operating at full speed at a depth of 500 feet about 350 miles from its homeport at Apra Harbor, Guam, when it slammed into the side of the mountain. The collision was so severe crew members were slammed into bulkheads and many of them suffered broken bones, lacerations and back injuries. Machinist’s Mate Second Class Joseph Ashley of Akron, Ohio, suffered a fatal head injury. He died the next day.

While the Navy withheld details about the crash, stories were later told by the survivors about the desperate minutes that occurred right after the accident.  They told of a desperate fight to maintain positive buoyancy to bring the boat to the surface after the forward ballast tanks were ruptured. Fortunately the inner hull was not breached and the nuclear reactor was not damaged. The submarine surfaced and made its way back to Guam on its own power.

There was a mystery at first as to just what it was that the San Francisco hit. The initial thought was that the vessel collided with another submarine, but when it was learned that no other subs were operating in the area, it was determined that the obstruction had been an undersea mountain.

It was discovered that there was a vague reference to the mountain the submarine struck on existing charts used in the San Francisco at the time. Other charts that were available for use contained stronger indication of the presence of a seamount. While uncharted, the area was marked as shaded, suggesting that a mountain was strongly suspected to exist in the area. A Navy Board of Inquiry determined that there had been a breach of proper procedures because the charts on the San Francisco had not been updated.

The boat’s skipper, Kevin Mooney, was relieved of his command and issued a non-judicial letter of reprimand. He was not court marshaled. Six other crew members were found guilty of hazarding a vessel and dereliction of duty. They were reduced in rank and given punitive letters of reprimand.

Twenty-seven other officers and men received awards for their actions that saved the boat and the lives of fellow crew members after the collision.

In spite of the extensive damage, the San Francisco has had its bow section replace by that of the USS Honolulu, which was retired in 2006. The boat also had its nuclear fuel replaced and plans are to keep the submarine in service until 2017.