Transportation Secretary Brock Adams, troubled by the Oct. 20 sinking of the Cost Guard training ship Cuyahoga, yesterday ordered an immediate investigation into the service's shipboard training programs.
"I know we need to improve on Coast Guard training," said Adams, who had earlier resisted efforts for a congressional investigation into the accident that killed 11 coast guardsmen - many of them office candidates on their first cruise.
The cutter Cuyahoga, a 51-year-old ship described as a floating classroom" sank in the Chesapeake Bay near the mouth of the Potomac River after it was rammed by an Argentinean freighter. Eighteen crewmen survived the accident, the worst Coast Guard collision in 10 years, by clinging to bits of Styrofoam or hanging onto the sides of a small lifeboat.
"My personal feeling is one of great sadness," Brock said yesterday. "It's a great tragedy."
Brock and Coast Guard Commandant Adm. John B. Hayes said they are "disturbed" by testimony given by Cuyahoga crewmen to a Marine Board of Inquiry that is investigating the collision. The candidates said they had completed only four weeks of classroom training and the ship's lookout. 17-year-old seaman apprentice Michael Myers, said it was only his second day aboard the vessel.
At one point in his testimony Myers had trouble distinguishing the port (left) from starboard (right) side of a ship. The ship's navigator also testified that the radar screen "looked like cartoons" to him.
In an interview yesterday, Hayes said he had initiated an internal investigation into the training program in August, two months before the collision. Despite Adams initial objections, the House Merchant Marine Committee, which oversees the Coast Guard, also has begun a separate investigation into the training programs.
Adams yesterday asked Hayes, and Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Budget and Program Mortimer L. Downey to report to him by Jan. 15. Downey is a former Coast Guard officer and once served on the Cuyahoga, which was based in Yorktown, Va.
The secretary said that his investigation would not interfere with either the official Coast Guard investigation or the congressional probe.
"In the light of the Cuyahoga tragedy," Adams said, "what is needed now is an impartial evaluation of the Coast Guard's training program and facilities." Included in the review will be an assessment of the number and type of training ships the service has, their manning and the qualifications of the service's instructors.
Cuyahoga captain, Donald K. Robinson, 45, has been told he is a "suspect" in the collision. Robinson has said he did not have any formal navigational training prior to assuming command of the ship.
Neither Adams nor Hayes yesterday would discuss the question of who was to blame for the accident. "I don't think it would be right for me to go into that before the (marine board's) report is issued to Admiral Hayes," Adams said.
"We have highly competent officers," Hayes said yesterday, adding that the service "was not hurting" for qualified personel.
Robinson, a 27-year Coast Guard veteran, had been reprimanded several weeks before the collision for "poor judgment" and "poor seamanship" after the Cuyahoga ran into a bridge in Baltimore Harbor on a training cruise.
Testimony before the marine board also has shown that the Cuyahoga, the service's oldest cutter, had a faulty alarm system, no emergency lighting system and a radar system that needed to be replaced at the time of the collision. It has raised from the bay and has been decommissioned.