A malfunctioning trash compactor was behind a grisly accident this spring aboard the submarine Georgia that cost a sailor his right hand.
The incident took place on the evening of March 27 while the guided-missile boat was underway in the Mediterranean Sea.
While the mishap took the then-21-year-old machinist mate’s hand off above the wrist, he was evacuated to a Spanish hospital where a renowned surgeon successfully reattached the appendage.
The investigation copy does not identify the sailor, but it faults him for failing to follow a temporary standing order, or TSO, regarding compactor use.
A safety feature that prevents compacting when the hood was up had broken and a TSO was issued earlier in March that instructed those smashing trash to secure the hydraulics when the hood was raised, according to the investigation.
The sailor was smashing trash that night but failed to secure the hydraulics while he reached into the bin with his right hand, and the compactor ram trapped his hand against the compactor’s rim, investigators wrote.
Other sailors wrote in their investigation statements that they had seen similar compactor malfunctions and TSOs on other boats and prior Georgia deployments, according to a copy of the command investigation obtained by Navy Times.
U.S. Submarine Force officials said there are “no known systemic issues with the trash compactor.”
Lessons learned from the incident have been shared with the submarine community, and qualification standards are being reviewed, among other actions, command spokeswoman Cmdr. Sara Self-Kyler said in an email.
The injured sailor told his chain of command that he had been properly trained to operate the compactor, according to the investigation.
Another safety component was also malfunctioning, but the boat’s command was not aware of it and two trash-smashing sailors had not reported it up the chain, according to the investigation.
That second issue would not have been a problem had the injured sailor followed the TSO, the investigation states.
The injured sailor is undergoing occupational therapy at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Self-Kyler said.
“Doctors say that the Sailor is motivated and has a high probability of a full recovery,” she said.
On the night of the mishap, crew members came across a bloody scene as they attempted to stabilize the hysterical sailor, according to the investigation.
One chief heard screaming and found the sailor “exiting the trash room with his hand hanging off and bleeding,” according to his statement.
“I rounded the corner and saw (the sailor) standing in the door screaming,” another chief recalled in his statement. “The deck was covered in blood.”
Sailors tried to keep their injured shipmate still and used their belts as impromptu tourniquets.
The sailor’s hand was hanging by a scant bit of tissue, and the doc removed the hand, gave the sailor morphine and attempted to stabilize him, according to the investigation.
The doc placed the hand in a bag and surrounded it with ice.
The injured sailor “was stable but in an extreme amount of pain” as he waited in the sick bay while the boat prepared a rendezvous with the Spanish coast guard helicopter, according to the investigation.
He stated that “he had been adding loose trash to the compactor at the time of the incident, and that he had taken his eyes off the path of the ram to grab more trash while doing so,” an engineer officer later wrote in a statement.
The report did not recommend any disciplinary action in connection to the incident.
There has been one other trash compactor-related mishap since 2010, according to Self-Kyler.
A junior technician’s fingers were crushed in August 2016 while trying to free a jammed weight in the compactor, she said.
“The junior technician reached into the trash compactor contrary to procedure and without the knowledge of the Trash Compactor Operator,” she said in an email. “The Trash Compactor Operator moved the compacting ram, crushing three of the junior technician’s fingers.”
A guide rod that ensured the compactor operated safely was reported broken on March 18, and leadership opted for the TSO based on similar problems that the crew had encountered on other boats, according to the investigation.
Both the chief of the boat and a chief petty officer reported seeing similar compactor issues on other submarines, investigators wrote.
“I know the safety lid has a history of malfunctioning,” one sailor said.
The chief of the boat wrote in his statement that he had seen the same temporary standing order issued “on at least one other ship.”
“I remember the discussion while I was a [chief petty officer] about this same part failure and felt it normal and safe for this material failure,” he wrote.
Leadership didn’t believe they had enough cans and weights to smash trash by hand and did not have the parts to repair the compactor while underway, according to one sailor.
“We believed this was sufficient based on a similar TSO from my first deployment on Georgia and a similar TSO when I was on Kentucky,” one sailor wrote.
“Based upon the failure point of the rod being deep within the sheathing, I was briefed that repair would not be feasible,” the engineer officer wrote in a statement. “All were in concurrence that a TSO would be required to permit safe operation of the trash compactor until it could be repaired upon return to port.”
Plans were made to fix the compactor during a refit period in April, according to the investigation.
The crew also planned to add the trash compactor safety mechanism to the gear it takes along while underway to fix such problems in the future, the investigation states.
The Spanish surgical team was lauded at an awards ceremony in May.
In a command press release and photo gallery, Navy leadership in Europe pointed to the Spanish team’s work as an example of the special relationship between United States and Spain.