Months before striking an underwater mountain, USS Connecticut hit a pier in San Diego

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BREMERTON — Less than six months before the USS Connecticut struck an underwater mountain in the South China Sea, the submarine hit a pier at Point Loma in San Diego.

No one was disciplined and the elite Bremerton-based submarine was cleared for deployment about a month later, a report released Monday by the Navy said.

"The ship conducted a safety stand-down to address these problems, but it was not adequately focused on addressing the root causes of the (pier crash)," wrote Navy Rear Adm. Christopher J. Cavanaugh, commander of the Japan-based Seventh Fleet. "...Failure of the (boat's leaders) to identify, self-assess, and hold personnel accountable for previous navigation deficiencies led to low standards."

The USS Connecticut pulls into Naval Base Kitsap on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021.
The USS Connecticut pulls into Naval Base Kitsap on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021.

Those low standards, Cavanaugh found, led to a crash with an underwater mountain in the South China Sea in October, one that injured 11 sailors and removed from service indefinitely one of the Navy's most important submarines at a time of global tensions.

"This mishap was preventable," the Navy said of its investigation.

"Specifically, the grounding resulted from an accumulation of unit-level errors and omissions in navigation planning; watch team execution; and risk management," the Navy said in a statement. "All of which fell far below U.S. Navy standards."

The crash on Oct. 2 was made more harrowing by the boat's failure to deballast and toward the surface. Instead, the 354-foot-long boat's auxiliary tanks failed to do so, and the vessel couldn't ascend for about 11 minutes, the investigation said.

At a depth of 74 feet and increasing, the chief of the watch "restored the trim pumps by pumping from one vented auxiliary tank to another."

"With the system restored, he commenced deballasting and pumped approximately 100,000 pounds of water overboard," the report said.

The incident took a toll on the 116-man crew. Two men suffered more serious injuries: a scalp laceration and signs of a concussion in one sailor; a broken scapula in another.

Seven sailors were identified for mental health treatment, a number that grew to about 50 — or more than 40% of the crew, the report said.

More: New subs and modernized missiles mean new facilities at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor

The USS Connecticut (SSN-22), a Seawolf-class nuclear-powered fast attack submarine, transits Rich Passage as it heads for Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton in May 2021.
The USS Connecticut (SSN-22), a Seawolf-class nuclear-powered fast attack submarine, transits Rich Passage as it heads for Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton in May 2021.

Navy: No discipline in previous crash

The 1997-commissioned USS Connecticut struck a pier while mooring at Naval Base Point Loma on April 14, 2021. More than a month later, an investigator with the Kitsap-based command of the three Seawolf submarines — the Connecticut, USS Jimmy Carter and USS Seawolf — said the crash should have "been prevented with early, decisive action" and recommended six total sailors, including the commanding officer, executive officer and navigator, receive discipline.

None was leveled.

“While this investigation revealed degraded standards in navigation, planning, poor seamanship, and ineffective command and control, it represented an anomalous performance and not systematic failure," the commander of the Seawolf class found.

The USS Connecticut deployed from San Diego on May 27. Navy commanders in the area where the ship deployed were apparently unaware the boat had crashed into the pier.

A string of errors, and a failure to catch them, was cited by the rear admiral's report of the crash. For instance, the boat's leaders failed to identify "at least 10 charted hazards" in the area where the sub hit the seamount.

The sub's navigation review team also "incorrectly assessed" the sub was sailing in "an open ocean environment" rather than restricted waters. That change would have led to more watchstanders and other precautions to watch out for hazards, as well as better monitoring of the boat's depth-finding fathometers.

Though there were signs the sub was in hazardous waters, no leader of the sub made the corrections necessary to avoid the grounding, the report said.

Following the October crash, the Connecticut sailed to Guam. The bow dome detached en route, the report said.

In November, Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, commander of the Japan-based Seventh Fleet, relieved Cmdr. Cameron Aljilani as the boat's commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Patrick Cashin as its executive officer, and Master Chief Sonar Technician Cory Rodgers as chief of the boat "due to loss of confidence." The investigation released Monday recommended seven sailors receive discipline for the incident, including removal from the Navy for five of them.

More: USS Seawolf comes home following globetrotting deployment

In December, a dome-less USS Connecticut sailed into its Bremerton homeport, the conclusion of a 7,000-mile mission to bring the elite boat home. Congress has already appropriated $50 million to begin the work. It's expected to require lengthy repairs; Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro told the Kitsap Sun in April that it is committed to getting the vessel back to sea. The vessel was dry-docked at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard earlier this year briefly for an assessment.

It's likely to be years before the Connecticut can do that. A previous submarine, the USS San Francisco, struck an underwater mountain in 2005 in a crash that killed a sailor and injured 97 others. The shipyard replaced its sonar dome with one from the decommissioned USS Honolulu and ultimately got the boat back to sea after about 3 1/2 years.

The Kitsap Sun requested the Navy's investigation reports of the pier collision in January but had yet to receive any documents until Monday's disclosure of the entire, though heavily redacted, investigation into the seamount crash.

The Navy said its investigation found 28 "corrective actions" that would help the Navy to "become a more effective fighting force." Of those, 14 actions are complete, 13 are in progress and one is pending.

"Given the inherently dangerous nature of Naval operations, we cannot become a risk-averse or zero-defect organization," the Navy said. "But prioritizing safety will engender a culture of greater attention to detail in operational tasks, enhanced procedural compliance, and a questioning attitude that constantly seeks improvement – which increases the readiness of our forces and the Navy’s lethality in combat."

The Connecticut is part of the Seawolf class of submarines that was designed in the Cold War for $3 billion apiece. It is stealthily quiet, among the fastest ever built, and armed with around 50 torpedoes fired from eight different tubes.

The Connecticut and sister ship Seawolf call Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton home; that will change when the Navy finishes a $90 million pier at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor where all three of the boats will homeport.

Connecticut collision: a timeline 

Oct. 2, 2021: The USS Connecticut, a Seawolf-class fast attack submarine, collides with an unmapped, underwater mountain. Eleven sailors are injured but none require hospitalization. The Navy says the sub's nuclear reactor core and propulsion systems were undamaged.

Oct. 8: The Navy announces the submarine has arrived in Guam, where workers, including those from the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, begin repair work. Investigations into the crash also begin. 

Nov. 4: Following the investigations, Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, commander of the Japan-based U.S. Seventh Fleet, relieves Cmdr. Cameron Aljilani as commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Patrick Cashin as executive officer, and Master Chief Sonar Technician Cory Rodgers as chief of the boat "due to loss of confidence."

Dec. 12: The USS Connecticut arrives in San Diego following a surface crossing of the Pacific Ocean. 

Dec. 20: The Navy confirms the USS Connecticut has arrived in Washington state in "safe and stable condition" and is docked at Indian Island. 

Dec. 21: The USS Connecticut sails into Bremerton, where it will likely remain for years in repairs at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. 

Feb. 8, 2022: The Connecticut enters dry dock 5 for an assessment of damages at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. 

May 23: The Navy releases its official report on the USS Connecticut's crash into an underwater seamount, saying it was "preventable," recommending changes and discipline for seven sailors.

Josh Farley is a reporter covering the military and Bremerton for the Kitsap Sun. He can be reached at 360-792-9227, josh.farley@kitsapsun.com or on Twitter at @joshfarley.

This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: USS Connecticut had hit a pier prior to striking underwater mountain