Two members of Congress, citing what they called "chilling" testimony by young Coast Guard trainees who survived the sinking of the cutter Cuyahoga, called yesterday for a congressional inestigation into the service's "lack of proper training and proper equipment."
"Each revelation's a shocker," said Rep. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who joined with Rep. Robert E. Bauman (R-Md.) in asking for a probe into why the cutter collided with a freighter on Chesapeake Bay. The Oct. 20 accident, one of the worst in recent Coast Guard history, killed 11 members of the service.
Separately, Coast Guard Commandant John B. Hayes said in an interview that he was "disturbed" by the crew's testimony being gathered by a Marine Board of inquiry in Baltimore. Hayes said, however, that he would not comment further until he received the board's report.
Mikulski, a member of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, which oversees the Coast Guard had no reluctance to discuss the testimony. "A 17-year-old kid on lookout? Doing night sea duty? The one who said the radar screen 'looked like cartoons. That's chilling," said said.
"Was it human error or lack of proper training and proper equipment? There are 11 men dead," Mikulski said. "That's an enormous tragedy."
Along with Bauman, Mikulski said she became concerned after statements by the cutter's survivors, many of them officer candidates, revealed a "shocking" lack of knowledge by the trainees. One for instance had trouble distinguishing the port from the star-board side.
"Both of us became concerned . . . but we do not want to interfere or subvert any judicial process," Mikulski said. The congressional probe would not begin, Mikulski said, until after the investigating board's hearings end. One official said the hearings, which began Tuesday, are expected to last at least another week.
The board of inquiry recessed late Friday and went to St. Inigoes, Md., to await the delicate operation of lifting the sunken vessel from one of the bay's busiest shipping lanes. Coast Guard spokesmen said yesterday the Cuyahoga would be raised from the bay sometime today, weather permitting.
A task force of Navy and Coast Guard divers has been at the scene of the wreck, four miles off Smith Point, Va., placing huge straps about the cutter, which lies on its side under 57 feet of water. Two large crances were reported in place to begin the lift.
The divers have recovered all but two of the bodies of the missing crewmen, many of whom were making their first training cruise from a Coast Guard officer candidate school at Yorktown, Va.
Mikulski said the accident illustrates the need for a "Maritime control system, similar to air traffic control systems, to monitor traffic on the bay.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Raymond H. Wood, who is presiding over the Baltimore hearings, told reporters this week that "some changes probably would be made in the officer candidate program as a result of the accident, but he declined to be more specific.
Capt. Charles Blaha, commanding officer of the Yorktown base where the Cuyahoga had been stationed, yesterday defended the trainees. "They were doing their jobs in relaying information to someone more experienced (who was) taking this information and properly evaluating it and taking proper action."
The captain added, "I am certain that we will review our shipboard training procedures. But the first and foremost fact is that we don't have a training ship. The Cuyahoga was the only one we had."
The Cuyahoga's commanding officer, Chief Warrant Officer Donald K. Robinson, has been named as a "suspect" in the investigation and has declined to testify on the events leading up to the collision. Any statements he gave to the board. Wood told the captain last week, could be used against him in the event of a court-martial or civilian trial.
In a 32-page interview given to Coast Guard investigators after the collision, Robinson reportedly implicates the Coast Guard cutter.