Moments before the Coast Guard cutter Cuyahoga was rammed by an Argentine freighter on the Chesapeake Bay Friday night, the cutter suddenly swerved to the left but then signaled that it was turning instead to the right.
That maneuver described to a Coast Guard board of inquiry here yesterday was one in a series of chaotic events that rapidly occurred as the horror-struck crew of the training cutter attempted vainly to steer out of the path of the oncoming ship that crewmen say suddenly loomed before them in one of the bay's major shipping lanes.
Yesterday, as a Coast Guard quartermaster emotionally described the final minutes aboard his ship, representatives of the freighter Santa Cruz II were charging in a $300,000 suit against the U.S. government that the cutter was at fault in the accident, which took the lives of 11 coast guardsmen.
Close to tears, Quartermaster 2d Class Randy Rose, 22, testified that "the first time I was aware of it (the freighter) was when I looked up and saw it off the starboard bow. There was a question on the bridge and some excitement . . . Where did it come from? I heard from the bridge wing, 'Oh my God, it's going to hit us.'"
The Cuyahoga's commanding officer, Chief Warrant Officer Donald K. Robinson, sat in the hearing room yesterday, head bowed and eyes downcast, as Rose recounted details of the collision. Robinson was informed on Tuesday that he is "a suspect" in the official investigation.
Rose said he heard Robinson say, "Come left to 290," and heard a short whistle blast from the Cuyahoga which was answered by the freighter. Then, Rose said, another short blast from his ship coincided with the danger signal - four short blasts - sounded by the Santa Cruz.
Robinson then threw the ship's engines into reverse, according to Rose, causing the steel-hulled cutter to shudder violently before it was slammed by the freighter and dragged backward.
Asked by a member of the board of inquiry what he did next, Rose said, "I hung on."
The Cuyahoga "just disappeared," said Rose, sinking within minutes and taking 11 crewmen with it.
Rules governing ship traffic, called the "rules of the road," normally require a ship in the Cuyahoga's position to yield to an oncoming vessel and give it the right of way. In nautical practice, one short whistle blast indicates a turn to the right.
Standard maneuvers to yield right-of-way include stopping, slowing or turning to pass behind the stern of the so-called "privileged ship," according to nautical manuals.
In emergencies, ships maneuver as best they can to avois collision. No official determination of the Cuyahoga's actions has yet been made.
In its suit against the Coast Guard, the owners of the Santa Cruz charge the Cuyhoga crew with "failing to maintain a proper and alert lookout . . failure to maintain a proper radar watch . . . and negligently and recklessly maneuvering into the freighter's path.
The suit also calls the 51-year-old Coast Guard vessel "unseaworthy and a hazard to navigation" and labels the crew "incompetent and inattentive to their duties."
Robinson said in his first-day testimony that the officer candidates on the Cuyahoga - on their first cruise - had completed only two weeks of classroom instruction in navigation and piloting.
Robinson was scheduled to testify yesterday, but declined on the advice of his attorney, Jerome Flanigan of Boston.
Robinson, a 27-year Coast Guard veteran and father of six from Yorktown, Va., declined to comment after the hearing.
Michaltte Myers, the 17-year-old seaman apprentice who was on watch, said in an interview earlier this week that he spotted the freighter's lights 15 minutes prior to the collision and relayed the information to the bridge, but did not identify the object as another ship. Myers said after that, "I wasn't paying attention to it . . . I'm only required to radio it down once. After that, they [the bridge] take over with radar."
According to a source close to the investigation, the Cuyahoga spotted the Santa Cruz on the radar, but "made an improper interpretation" of its direction and location.
Shortly after the collision, Robinson gave a detailed, 32-page statement to Coast Guard investigators that, according to one source, implicates the captain and the crew on the bridge in the actions taken by the cutter.
The statement yesterday was declared an official document by Rear Adm. Raymond Wood, head of the Coast Guard board of inquiry, and withheld from public release.
Statements also were taken from the Cuyahoga survivors and crew members of the Santa Cruz, copies of which were made available earlier this week to the attorney representing the Argentine captain. According to the attorney, Kieren Quinn, his suit on behalf of the Argentine owners was filed on the basis of these statements which Quinn called "corroborative."
Wood said after yesterday's preceedings that the board of inquiry will be present when the Cuyahoga is raised from the water, expected to take place later this week.The board hopes to recover the ship's equipment for further clues to the cause of the collision.
At the Coast Guard's training center in Yorktown, Va., the Cuyahoga's home port, about 1,000 people including 18 survivors of the collision attended a memorial service yesterday for those killed in the incident.
Center commander Capt. Charles Blaha told the mourners that the dead crewmembers would be sadly missed.
"They were our sons and brothers, our husbands and sons and our friends and shipmates," Blaha said. "We shall not forget them."