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Submarine vets call for USS Scorpion inquiry

Nov. 15, 2012 - 07:40PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 15, 2012 - 07:40PM  |  
The Scorpion is seen in April 1968. It went down the next month.
The Scorpion is seen in April 1968. It went down the next month. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command via Gannet)
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A veterans group of submariners is calling for a new investigation of the unexplained accident that sank the U.S. nuclear attack sub USS Scorpion more than 40 years ago.

The Scorpion went down May 22, 1968, killing 99 men and foundering 11,220 feet underwater in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The sub carried two nuclear torpedoes and a reactor. A Navy Court of Inquiry found that year that "the cause of the loss cannot be definitively ascertained," leaving the sub's demise a matter of controversy for decades.

Last month, the U.S. Navy denied a proposal by marine disaster experts to investigate the shipwreck, triggering the latest call for finally determining what sank the Scorpion.

"One can hope that the Navy will listen to us," says Thomas Conlon of the U.S. Submarine Veterans, a 13,800-member organization of former submarine service members dedicated to memorializing lost submariners. The organization sent a letter Nov. 5 to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus with the "request that the United States Navy officially reopen the investigation of USS Scorpion."

At least 11 family members of the crew who died on the sub have joined in the call for the expedition.

In May, a team led by former U.S. naval officer Paul Boyne proposed to the U.S. Navy Heritage and History Command in Washington that it would send an undersea robot to resolve unanswered questions about the tragedy. After a summer of contentious correspondence, the Navy denied the permit, citing the lack of an archaeological plan.

In a follow-up letter, U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Barry Bruner warned Boyne against undertaking any unauthorized dive of the wreck, citing the "Sunken Military Craft Act" law. "That law allows the Department of the Navy to make the determination on whether or not a requested dive might potentially disturb, remove or injure a sunken military craft," U.S. Navy Cmdr. Brenda Malone says.

Boyne says he just wants to know "why did these men die?" He presented a new explanation for the loss of the sub at a marine forensics symposium in April. "We don't know why this ship went down, yet they are treating this like there is nothing to see here and we should just move along," he said.

Boyne says the expedition team still plans a "recreational" investigation of the wreck, which rests in international waters at a location the U.S. Navy considers "secret," according to Malone. "The absence of a permit for cultural preservation and archeological matters on lands of the U.S. does not affect this recreational dive in the middle of very international waters," Boyne replied to the Navy in a letter sent Nov. 15.

(In response to USA Today inquiries made in June, Malone said the nuclear torpedoes and reactor that went down with the submarine are "monitored," but she could not discuss further details.) The Navy has tested the water around the submarine for radioactive releases, at least as recently as 1998.

Theories about the Scorpion's demise range from a torpedo self-firing into the ship to a battery explosion. There is also Boyne's suggestion that rubber bearings holding its propeller shaft failed. He says that may have led to a catastrophic failure, spilling water through the propeller shaft opening into the sub too rapidly for the ship to be raised to the surface.

In the denied proposal, the team planned to send a robot sub to the wreck to photograph the displaced shaft. The robot would have sent a small tethered camera into the ship's engine room to examine the damage to the coupling that held the shaft. Although sending robots to 11,800-feet depths was very difficult when the sub sank, recent decades have seen advances in deep-sea submersibles.

The "recreational" expedition being considered would be led by Wreck Diving Magazine and the accident investigation firm Marine Forensic & Investigation Group (MFI Group) of Summerville, S.C.

"A few details are still being worked out, but the expedition will go next year," MFI Vice President Charles George says.

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