As noted in our first article on Lessons in Leadership, this is a story about redemption. If you haven’t heard this story before you may think that this story is already over, as Commander Mooney redeemed the USS San Fransisco’s reputation, taking them from a joke to a certified ship going on missions; however, this story is far from over.
The first year of the USS San Francisco being certified was a success. Since the 13 months of taking command of the ship, Commander Mooney took many accolades for his leadership. The ship’s next peacetime mission was to take a port visit to Guam. The ship left on January 7th, 2005.
Midday on January 8thCommander Mooney was eating lunch in the boardroom as the USS San Francisco glided through the Pacific Ocean at 525 feet deep moving about 40 mph… then crash. The nearly seven-ton ship collided head-on at top speed into an undersea mountain.
Chaos ensued as bodies were launched into steel and blood was everywhere. Commander Mooney had 138 crew members and three-quarters of them sustained injuries, mostly to the head, and some were unconscious.
It took Commander Mooney a moment to process, thinking, “What the hell just happened? Did this really just happen?” There is a human tendency to believe that bad things are not happening, and at some level what had just happened was beyond comprehension.
Despite the shock, it was time to lead. Once he realized they had survived the initial blow and that there was no flooding or fires he started communication to home base. Then he walked around the entire sub reassuring every crew member that they were going to be okay by either touching them or making eye contact so they could come together and proceed. They needed to surface the ship and turn the ship back towards Guam.
As stated in the first article, subs are self-containing worlds of their own, but now the ship was compromised and one of the crew mates needed urgent medical attention. They needed to surface fast. Usually in an emergency blow the sub will shoot up to the surface, but the bow was shattered and the ballast tanks were damaged. Commander Mooney thought he was going to die, just waiting for a wave of water to wash over him. Surfacing the ship felt like an eternity; however, getting the ship to the surface was just the beginning.
Petty Officer Joseph A. Ashley had been thrown about 20 feet fracturing his skull and was in need of immediate medical attention. Unfortunately, despite all efforts to keep him alive and evacuate him onto a helicopter through the sub’s sail, Petty Officer Ashley died on the USS San Fransisco as crew mates took turns holding his hand. On January 10ththe USS San Fransisco pulled into Guam, surviving 52 hours at sea.
Submarines travel mostly blind, using charts and soundings to navigate the undersea landscape, and after the fatal crash it was brought to light that the routing chart provided by the navy was faulty. The chart didn’t indicate any hazards on their path and directed them on a course right into the undersea mountain. Despite this, Commander Mooney accepted full responsibility. The safe navigation of a sub is the responsibility of the commanding officer. Although the chart they received was faulty, Commander Mooney acknowledges mistakes or oversights that lead to the collision, like going too fast, not taking enough depth soundings, and cross-checking with other charts; however, the USS San Fransisco seemed to be unlucky as most ships also heavily relied on the charts and trusted their navigation. Although the crew didn’t win the race to save Petty Officer Ashley’s life, their instincts and training brought the other 137 crew members safely to Guam. Commander Mooney was proud of the way his crew handled the accident and brought the ship home. One of the natural things in our world is that we will face hardships and tragedies, but what matters is how we face it.
By Alicia Iwakiri, LAFDLA presentation of Commander Kevin Mooney