NORFOLK, Va. — Four sailors are choosing to face criminal charges rather than accept administrative discipline for their roles in the training accident deaths of two Navy divers in Maryland, a Navy official said Tuesday.
Navy Divers 1st Class James Reyher and 2nd Class Ryan Harris drowned Feb. 26 while working at the underwater test facility at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. Members of the unit have said Reyher and Harris died after a line tethered to them became tangled with an unspecified object at the bottom of the facility. By the time they were pulled to the surface, they were out of air and unresponsive.
Reyher was from Caldwell, Ohio; Harris was from Gladstone, Mo.
Arraignments for the four sailors were scheduled for Wednesday, a spokesman said. The specific charges the sailors will face and their identities won’t be made public until they are arraigned, said Lt. Nathan Potter, a spokesman for the Virginia Beach-based Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2.
A trial likely wouldn’t occur until later this year. Potter said the sailors were among five who were given ‘non-judicial punishment’ in August for their roles in the drowning deaths. The other sailor accepted the punishment, the details of which have not been made public, and will not face criminal charges as a result.
In June, a hearing was held to determine whether to press formal criminal charges against two sailors for dereliction of duty and involuntary manslaughter. Potter would not say whether those men are among the four being arraigned Wednesday.
In choosing to go to trial, the four sailors are effectively looking to clear their names and keep their careers and pay on track. But doing so carries a risk of greater penalties than what they may have otherwise faced.
According to the Navy, non-judicial punishment for officers can include forfeiture of some pay, up to two months restriction to base or to a ship, up to 30 days arrest in quarters and a reprimand.
Potter said the sailors would be tried in a special court-martial, which carries a maximum penalty of a year confinement, forfeiture of some pay, reduction in rank and a bad conduct discharge.
At the time of the training, the divers were practicing locating a helicopter at the bottom of the Super Pond, as the underwater test facility is known. The Super Pond is littered with metal objects and is used to conduct shock testing of vessels, submarine systems and munitions. With a bottom measuring 300 feet in diameter and a maximum depth of 150 feet, the facility also has been used to test torpedoes, missiles, warheads, amphibious and remotely controlled vehicles, underwater gun firing and acoustics.
Diving deeper than 130 feet requires the approval of a commanding officer. Reyher and Harris reached about 150 feet. At the preliminary hearing, discussion delved into whether proper protocol for allowing such a deep dive was followed.
Cmdr. Michael Runkle was not on scene the day of the dive. Following the deaths, he was removed as commander of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2 due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command.
The sailors belonged to an expeditionary mobile unit whose salvage operations have included TWA Flight 800, Swiss Air Flight 111, the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, and the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor.
The unit also provided damage assessments and repairs on the USS Cole and participated in humanitarian missions following Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 earthquake that struck Haiti.
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