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"They were clinging onto handrails'

The first impact knocked the rear of the Ehime Maru toward the sky. Capt. Hisao Onishi felt a shudder and heard metal screeching. From inside the bridge, he noticed his instruments were dead. Then, through a window, he saw the water rising.

Testifying before a Navy court of inquiry Wednesday, Onishi described the terrifying moments after a submarine crashed into his ship last month. Calm and composed, he spoke through an interpreter before a courtroom packed with families of the Japanese victims and officers of the USS Greeneville.

The Ehime Maru, carrying 20 crew members, 13 teens and two teachers, was on a voyage to teach high school students commercial fishing when the submarine surfaced beneath it. Nine people, including four students, were lost at sea.

The trawler was about 9 miles south of Oahu when the Greeneville burst from the ocean and ripped through its stern. Onishi said he heard a "terrible metal hitting sound" between the helms room and the stack, followed by more banging.

"We felt an impact as if the stern of the ship was lifted up," he said.

When he saw the water rising, Onishi ordered his navigator to gather the passengers and abandon ship. Onishi headed for the deck, water already at his heels. People were yelling, trying to confirm everyone had life jackets, but "no one was in a state where they could respond."

"They were clinging onto handrails and some structural things of the ship," Onishi said.

Then the waves started crashing, tossing people into the ocean. Onishi was thrown from the ship before he could even drop the life rafts. Floating in the Pacific, he looked back at his sinking ship and saw men and boys still grasping onto the deck.

Somehow the life rafts dislodged. People scrambled aboard, pulling others inside. All around them life jackets floated in the water, but no one held on.

"I was hoping that I would find somebody clinging to them," Onishi said. "We yelled and searched for them, but I was not able to find anybody."

The submarine, which Onishi thought had gone, drifted close to the rafts. Onishi could see several people on the Greeneville's bridge.

"We were hoping that they would lower their inflatable rubber boat, but the only thing they did was to lower the Jacob's ladder," he said, adding, "They were watching us."

From the water, Onishi saw his ship disappear. It was gone in just five minutes.

Not until about an hour later, when the Coast Guard arrived, was Onishi able to conduct a head count. He learned then that nine were missing.

The Japanese relatives appeared calm and took notes for the first half of Onishi's testimony. However, when he said he couldn't find nine of the passengers, they began sobbing and brushing away tears.

Afterward, Kazuo Nakata was still too upset to talk with reporters. "I would like to say something, but I can't think," said Nakata, father of a missing teacher. "I can't say anything."

Following the collision, Onishi had criticized the Greeneville's crew for not doing more to help the accident victims. On Wednesday, he said he now understands that the crewmen feared the sub would capsize the lifeboats if it came too close.

Vice Adm. John Nathman, who is overseeing the Navy court of inquiry into the Feb. 9 crash, thanked Onishi for testifying and said he appreciated how difficult it was for him. "Your testimony is important for a more complete understanding of the collision," he said.

At the conclusion of his testimony, Onishi implored the court to conduct a thorough investigation and find a way to ensure "this kind of accident would be prevented in the future."

Prior to his cross-examination, Charles Gittins, an attorney for Greeneville Cmdr. Scott Waddle, told Onishi the commanding officer "accepts responsibility for this accident." The two captains later met face-to-face, at which time Waddle apologized.

"I wanted a chance to meet with him to offer an apology," Waddle told reporters. "It went very well."

Onishi declined to comment.

Waddle, his executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Pfeifer, and the officer of the deck, Lt.j.g. Michael Coen could face possible courts-martial for their roles in the accident. The Greeneville was demonstrating a rapid-surfacing drill for 16 civilian guests when the collision occurred.