Sub Tragedy: The last time I saw James Cameron we were in the same submarine, one that months later accidentally sank a Japanese fishing boat and killed nine people.
Cameron, nominated for an Oscar for his current hit film, Avatar, will be given the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s highest honor, the Modern Masters Award, Saturday night, February 6, at the Arlington Theater.
Cameron, Capt. Scott Waddle, and I were riding high in the conning tower as the USS Greeneville skimmed along the Pacific off San Diego in 2000. Cameron, who directed Titanic and the bizarre The Abyss, was shooting everything in sight, both in and outside the sub, with a mini video camera.
“Are you planning a submarine movie?” I asked. No, just shooting, he replied. We were among a group of Santa Barbarans, most from the Navy League, who’d been invited to take a spin in the Greeneville.
Some even were allowed to take the wheel as we submerged, watched carefully by crewmen. After diving to the depths to collect seawater samples from nearly 1,000 feet down, Capt. Waddle surfaced to periscope depth. After scanning the horizon to make sure no other vessels were around, Waddle descended again and demonstrated an emergency surface maneuver, a fast shot to the top. It’s known as an emergency main ballast tank blow.
It was all for the benefit of the VIPs aboard, part of the Navy’s effort at public relations. All went well. But a few months later, on the tragic day of Friday, February 9, 2000, Capt. Waddle was again demonstrating what the Greeneville could do with another group of VIPs, 10 miles off Diamond Head, Oahu.
The jaunt was running late. Perhaps Waddle was in a hurry. According to reports, Waddle surfaced to periscope depth, saw no boats, then took the Greeneville down and made the same emergency ballast blow. But this time, the sub slammed into something hard overhead. Waddle reportedly asked, “What the hell was that?”
Somehow, the Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru, with student trainees aboard, had traveled directly above the surfacing sub, which slammed into it.
A Navy court placed blame on Waddle and other crew members. In response to requests from the families of the victims aboard Ehime Maru, and the government of Japan, the Navy raised the boat and moved it to shallow water. Divers retrieved the remains of eight of the nine victims from the wreck. Ehime Maru was then moved back out to sea and scuttled in deep water. The Navy compensated the government of Ehime Prefecture, Ehime Maru’s survivors, and victims’ family members for the accident. Waddle traveled to Japan to apologize to the ship’s survivors and victims’ families.
His Navy career finished, Waddle resigned. In response to the accident, the Navy changed its policies regarding civilian visits to its ships. So far, Cameron has not made a submarine movie.
I met Waddle a year or so later at the Santa Barbara Yacht Club but he declined to discuss the tragedy. Somewhere I still have a clear bottle of seawater, a souvenir of our deep-water plunge and reminder of my cruise with Cameron and the tragedy that was to come.