The Coast Guard yesterday charged the commanding officer of the ill-fated cutter Cuyahoga with involuntary manslaughter in the collision last October in Chesapeake Bay that sank the vessel and killed 11 crewmen.
The skipper, Warrant Officer Donald K. Robinson, also will face charges of endangering a vessel and negligent damage to government property at a general court martial scheduled to begin May 7 in Yorktown , Va.
His trial will be the first time since 1966 that a Coast Guard captain has faced a general court martial, the most serious form of military trial, according to a spokesman.
Robinson, now in charge of base security at the Yorktown Reserve Training Center, said yesterday that the charges were "not unexpected," but declined further comment.
Coast Guard Commandant John B. Hayes filed the charges personally-an unusual action, according to an aide. The aide did not elaborate. If found guilty of all charges, Robinson faces a maximum penalty of six years' hard labor, loss of pay and benefits and a dishonorable discharge.
The Cuyahoga, a training vessel, sank after it was struck in the right side near the stern by the Argentine freighter Santa Cruz II about 9:10 p.m. on Oct. 20, off Smith Point, Md. The cutter, which was heading from Yorktown Training Center into the Potomac River for the night, went down within minutes, taking with it 11 of the 29 crewmen.
A National Transportation Safety Board report issued in February laid much of the blame for the accident on Robinson. The collision occurred under a clear sky on calm seas, the report noted.
Although a Coast Guard board of inquiry did not fix blame, Hayes told a House investigating subcommittee last month that Robinson was chiefly at fault and said that "command was the crucial element."
The transportation safety board report blamed Robinson for failure to follow the nautical rules of the road while executing a left turn across the path of the ocean-bound Santa Cruz II.
The 15-year-old cutter was raised from 57 feet of water last fall with a gaping hole in her side after Coast Guard and Nave divers had removed the bodies of trapped crewmen and ceremonially lowered the vessel's flag to half mast.
Despite the intricate, $250,000 salvage operation, the Coast Guard decided the ship was useless. Last month the Cuyahoga, the Coast Guard's oldest vessel, was blown up and sunk off Viginia to become part of a natural fishing reef.
Robinson will be tried by a board of at least five Coast Guard officers appointed by Hayes. Their verdict can be reviewed by Hayes and Transportation Secretary Brock Adams, and can be appealed to other courts.
Robinson, who first enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1951, has four good conduct medals and several other Coast Guard decorations. When he took command of the Cuyahoga on June 17, 1977, he received a official Coast Guard letter suggesting that he seek additional training in navigation and nautical rules. Robinson did not take the recommended courses, however, according to testimony at official hearings on the collision.
Kieron Quinn, a Baltimore lawyer who represents the Santa Cruz and its captain, Abelardo Alboniz, said the court martial would have no impact on a series of civil suits filed against the freighter's owners by several Cuyahoga survivors and the estates of several of the victims.