An Anniversary of a tragedy

As the year comes to a close, the days are counting down to the one year anniversary of this tragic accident.  I was there at the pier waving goodbye to my husband and the crew of the USS Minneapolis Saint Paul, SSN 708 as they left Plymouth, England. 

Four crew members were washed overboard by heavy waves on December 29, 2006 in Plymouth Sound, England as the ship was exiting HMNB Devonport on the surface following a port call. This resulted in the deaths of Senior Chief Petty Officer Thomas Higgins (Chief of the Boat) and Sonar Technician (Submarines) 2nd Class Michael Holtz. After the preliminary investigation, Commander Edwin Ruff, the Commanding Officer, received a punitive letter of reprimand and was relieved of command.[1]   ~Wikipedia

I remember the weather and the wind.  Those of us that were there saying our final goodbye of a wonderful holiday spent with our sailors, were soaked to the bone.  The wind prevented us from holding umbrellas to keep from getting wet. 

 

As we stood there waving our good byes and blowing kisses, the Royal Navy officers that were surrounding us were in awe of our love that kept us standing on the pier in such bad weather.  During the boats slow departure one of the officers made small talk with the small group of wives (and children) that stood with me.  At one point he asked “Is it normal for your CO to leave in such bad conditions?”; and I remember to this day all of us agreeing to “The CO will leave no matter what the weather is like, he will push his crew to get anything and everything done no matter what.”  (*It has come to my attention that this statement offends some, Please understand that I do not lay any blame on the CO for the accident.  This statement was meant to be taken as though we were saying that it was normal for the boat to leave in that type of weather; I personnally had stood at a pier many times before in bad weather.  Remember I am going off my memory of what happened before we even knew there was going to be an accident.**)

 The weather was so bad that we as a group knew we would not be able to make it to the mouth of the sound in time to see the boat go through. 

 

Sadly, our Family Support Group President and I (the Ombudsman) did not find out about the tragedy until the next day, where we found the news of our loss in a newspaper

Headline while touring the site of where the Mayflower set sail. 

I will never forget the feeling I had standing in the door way of the little shop across from the steps of the Mayflower site when the headline was read aloud.  I quickly grabbed the paper and opened it up on the cashier’s counter saying “This is our husband’s Submarine”  after scanning the article we looked to this little old lady for help “Where would the survivor’s be taken?” .  She looked at us in shock and told us where the hospital was. 

I paid for the paper and ran out of the shop towards a phone.  I was 7 months pregnant and the run seemed to take forever.  Who was I going to call? I was the Ombudsman of the family and crew; I was at a loss.   I called my Family Support Group Vice President who was still in country awaiting her flight home, she told me what little info she had.

Then I called my stand in back home.  That’s when I first heard of who we had lost. 

From there my goal was to find who had survived, we knew they were somewhere close but we just had to find them.  I knew there was nothing I could do for anyone else because of where we were, but if nothing else we could at least show the survivors that we were here for them. 

We went directly to the base and were told over and over to go to the ‘other’ gate or to call one phone number or another.  After a few LONG hours we finally made our point that we were not going to leave with out seeing the accident’s survivors.  Once our point was made and they made a few calls to make sure our IDs were real and we were who we were, they escorted us onto base. 

The reunion between us and the two survivors is one that will always be remembered. One man I knew as a friend and the other I knew as only a fellow submariner to my husband; both I hugged as if they were brothers that I had almost lost (I think we all needed that).  With tears in my eyes the hugs will always be an everlasting imprint in my mind.  

The rest of the night was spent in conversation (letting the men talk about what they wanted to talk about, be it getting out their feelings or talking about something other than the accident) and ended in a dinner provided by Royal Navy.  We made sure that they new that we were there for them if they needed anything while we were still in country. 

I was unable to really get a good night sleep until I was back home, and even then my job as Ombudsman had begun again.  It was a tiring job, but the hard part was done by my stand in, which I couldn’t be more grateful for. 

I learned a lot during those months after the accident, through both my own experiences and from those around me. 

The whole experience, I will never forget. 

My heart goes out to the families that suffered a loss of those two great men; also my heart goes out to the families of those that survived, including the third man who went overboard but who was rescued by the crew.  I hope that they never have to feel the fear that they felt of this near loss again.

So as this anniversary gets closer I keep in mind that the most dangerous place on a sub is topside and that our men’s seemingly safe careers as submariners do have a reality that could end tragically.  This experience made the possible dangers a reality for me.  I just hope that safety will be the main concern in all conditions on all missions in the future. 

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10 Responses

  1. What a great post. I wish I would have been more prepared before reading it due to the fact that my husband is always topside. IT is something that I try not to think about every time he is out. It made my tummy turn over a few times. But, it was written well. Thanks Megan.

  2. Thank you, Something just moved me to get that all out. I know I’ve said a few things here or there, but I had yet to recount the whole event. I still don’t ever think I will be able to express how I really felt, my world really did go in slow motion. And it took me a long time to accept that it was ok that I was not there for the families during this accident, I had done what I was supposed to do to make sure the families had the support they needed. I realized that there was a reason why we were still there and that was to provide support for the two who almost lost their life (even if it was only a few hours that we were with them.); That truely was the first thing that poped in to my mind when I saw the headlines, ‘Where were the survivors, and how do I get there’.
    Sorry that the post is not upbeat, but thanks for letting me get it out!

    I inserted info about what happened just now, I just realized that some people probably don’t know what happened.

  3. What a powerful reminder of the dangers our submariners live with every day. Thank you.

  4. Thanks Megan for sharing. We always know it can happen, but think it never will. My prayers and gratitude go out the families for their ultimate sacrifice.

    Senior Chief Thomas Higgins and Petty Officer 2nd class Michael Holtz gone, but not forgotten.

  5. The grief of a fallen comrade is shared universally by all of us that wear the uniform of our country. It does not matter whether your are setting sail out of a foreign port or standing watch in a FOB the danger is always there. Thanks for taking the time to remember our heroes, I does not happen enough.

  6. Edited in this comment. Just wanted to let everyone know.

    (*It has come to my attention that this statement offends some, Please understand that I do not lay any blame on the CO for the accident. This statement was meant to be taken as though we were saying that it was normal for the boat to leave in that type of weather; I personnally had stood at a pier many times before in bad weather. Remember I am going off my memory of what happened before we even knew there was going to be an accident.**)

  7. I loved the article but I must disagree with one part, the CO was at fault for what happened. Tom being the devoted sailor he was would never second guess the CO decision. I know we could have delayed one day and your brothers would still be here.

  8. Megan,
    Thank you for the remembrance post. Even though I never met the COB or Petty Officer Holtz, they will live with me forever. It was a tragic accident that day and though some people always need to place blame on someone, I truly believe that God has a plan. I know we are not privy to His plans, but I know He has one and I keep my faith with that. You were a wonderful Ombudsman for us and really helped all the wives deal with their grief and loss. Thank you!
    -Amy

  9. Thanks for writting this 🙂 The boat had an amazing Ombudsman!!:) You did an amazing job at caring/helping the families before and after the accident. Many of us would not have been OK with out the amazing support from each other. I miss the closeness of the sub life. You truly felt like part of a big family. Including the good and the bad. So many were effected by this and I hope that they can honor Holtz and Higgins by being the best sailors out there.
    xoxox

  10. Thank you for your poignant recollections. I followed this story as soon as it broke as Michael Holtz lived about 30 miles from me. I’m still in contact with one of his family members. Mike’s guestbook remains online for some years to come.

    I recall how gallent Senior Chief Higgins’ wife was in the aftermath of the accident, when the boat returned to Norfolk and during special services, including at the Groton Chapel.

    The photo of the boat’s sailors in the chapel in Rota, Spain, is beautiful.

    When I toured MSP last May in Norfolk, noticed in the wardroom the beautifully framed presentation made for the boat by the mayor of Rota.

    Visit was especially meaningful as I knew the boat would be headed out to its eventual destination — demiss at yards in WA.

    For those of the Dolphin Brotherhood, every part of a sub can be dangerous, whether topside or deep within the belly of these black sharks of steel. It’s the absolute trust in one another that makes “The Silent Service” such a tight-knit community which, for most, will last a lifetime (wives, moms, dads, sisters, brothers, girlfriends, other loved ones included)

    For Higgins and Holtz, I’m sure, along with the 4,025 who’ve gone before them, they are having fair winds and following seas as they rest their oars.

    Nancy
    Medina, OH

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