Groton tower's sub-escape lesson sinks in

A student practices exhaling from 15 feet below to the surface of the tower Tuesday with an instructor next to him to ensure nothing goes wrong.

Groton - Standing near the bottom of a 40-foot tower of water, a young Navy recruit described how he would travel to the top.

Seaman Ryan Straughan, wearing an inflated suit the color of an orange highlighter, told the instructor that he would exhale or breathe normally in the water.

"What do you never, ever do during sub escape?" asked the instructor, Jason Saiz.

"Hold your breath," Straughan correctly replied. Doing so could cause his lungs to overinflate.

A series of accurate answers in the verbal quiz, preceded by multiple briefings, earned Straughan the right to climb the ladder at the bottom of the tower into the escape trunk, similar to the one on submarines that officers and sailors would use to escape in an emergency.

The Naval Submarine School is home to the one-of-a-kind trainer for the U.S. Navy, used to build a sailor's confidence in the escape equipment on a submarine and in his own abilities to use it should he ever need to.

Two U.S. submarines, the Thresher and the Scorpion, sank in the 1960s killing both crews. The Kursk, one of the most advanced vessels in the Russian fleet, sank in the Barents Sea in 2000.

The Kursk disaster prompted the U.S. Navy to review its escape training, equipment and procedures, and then abandon the previous training method used in Groton - non-pressurized training conducted in a pool.

Students climbed out of an escape trunk and jumped into a pool to simulate surfacing, never feeling the buoyancy of their suits or traveling up through a column of water.

Construction began in 2005 on a $17 million trainer in Groton, and the submarine school formally opened it last fall. The tower holds 84,000 gallons of water, is 20 feet in diameter and 40 feet high. The suit worn by the students is designed for escapes in water up to 600 feet deep.

Frank Gorham, the submarine escape program manager and a retired master chief master diver, hopes the students will never have to use what they learn in the two-day course.

But if they do, he said, "we've given them the best training possible."

Safety precautions taken

Straughan and his classmates took the course this week as part of Basic Enlisted Submarine School. Nine of the 24 students passed the first day's tests- a medical screening, classroom instruction and clearing their ears inside a recompression chamber- and moved on to do the pressurized training in the tower on the second day.

While waiting his turn, Straughan said to the friend next to him, "Dude, this is like the most fun day I've had in the Navy."

"You told me that like 10 times," Fireman Apprentice Eric Schnackenberg, 22, of Iowa, said to him.

"'Cause it's true," said Straughan, a 20-year-old from Louisiana.

Inside the dry escape trunk, Straughan held on to a handle with his right hand and plugged a tube from his suit into the air supply.

His suit inflated. Water began to fill the chamber.

Once the pressure inside equaled to the pressure at the bottom of the tower, the hatch opened. The air that was trapped escaped to the surface as a large bubble.

An instructor guided Straughan through the hatch and into the tower, where two other divers were waiting. For safety reasons, they hooked Straughan onto a wire that ran to the surface.

One gave Straughan an OK sign. He said his name, rate and "I'm OK!"

The instructor gave a second OK sign. Straughan yelled "Hooyah!" The instructor let go.

Straughan shot up 37 feet through the water. Two divers were waiting at the surface; one grabbed hold of his suit.

"I'm OK," Straughan yelled. After he was unhooked from the wire, he climbed out of the tower and stood on a line for 10 minutes.

Two Navy doctors and the Navy divers working as instructors monitor the students for any physiological problems, including numbness, weakness or changes in coordination and thinking.

The most common injury is ear pain caused by not clearing their ears properly under pressure. The most dangerous is overinflated lungs, since a resulting gas bubble can travel to the brain or heart and cause a stroke or heart attack.

A hyperbaric chamber is near the top of the pool in case of an emergency, but it has not been needed.

Annually, about 3,000 sailors go through the training. The class is not a requirement, since it would be difficult to bring everyone back to the school for the course, but most new recruits take it, along with many officers and senior sailors who return to the school for additional instruction.

After, Straughan said he was nervous that he would not be able to clear his ears. Students wear nose clips since they cannot reach inside the hood to pinch their noses.

Once Straughan realized the technique was working, he said it was "just excitement from that point forward."

"You're just cruising," said Straughan, who plans to be a sonar technician on a submarine.

Seaman Apprentice Nicholas Flanagan, who also practiced an escape in the tower, said he was nervous at first, but the instructors gave such explicit instructions multiple times that he felt comfortable it would go well.

Flanagan, 19, of Minnesota, said his confidence in his ability to get out of a sinking submarine before the training was about a "two."

"Now I'm a nine," he said, "maybe a 10."

Sonar Technician First Class Michael Lilburn, left, instructs Fireman Apprentice Eric Schnackenberg, center, and Seaman Ryan Straughan prior to the underwater practice ascent Tuesday from 15 feet.
Sonar Technician First Class Michael Lilburn, left, instructs Fireman Apprentice Eric Schnackenberg, center, and Seaman Ryan Straughan prior to the underwater practice ascent Tuesday from 15 feet.


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