Just hours after his nuclear attack submarine surfaced beneath a Japanese fishing trawler off Hawaii on Feb. 9, accidentally sinking it and killing nine of the 35 people on board, a distraught Cmdr. Scott Waddle called his father in Austin, Texas. The anguished naval officer, nearing his second anniversary as commander of the USS Greeneville, couldn't understand how his 6,000-ton vessel had struck the smaller ship. "He said, 'Dad, I checked with the periscope, the first officer checked, the sonar man checked. There was nothing,' " reports Col. Dan Waddle, 70, a retired Air Force pilot. "He told me, 'Dad, I did what I was supposed to do. I went right by the book.' "

Not that Waddle is excusing himself. Despite the support of friends and family, Waddle told PEOPLE that the past few weeks have been agonizing as he relives the disaster. "When I saw the Ehime Maru sinking, through the periscope, after we hit, a part of me died," Waddle says. "Then I saw [men] in the lifeboats. They told me they had gotten out all [of them]. When I heard from the Coast Guard that nine men were unaccounted for, I felt as if my very heart had been ripped out of my chest."

That, however, hardly mollifies "Waddle's critics, especially after the revelation that civilian guests were in the control room as the sub demonstrated a surfacing maneuver—and that some were even at the controls, a situation Japan's Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has called "extremely deplorable." Amid charges by Japanese officials and victims' relatives of a cover-up, U.S. naval officials announced that a rare court of inquiry will convene March 5 to investigate the tragedy, focusing on the role of Waddle and two subordinates. The presiding admirals could subsequently recommend anything from exoneration to a court-martial, which could even lead to a prison sentence. "Scott has grave concerns for what the future holds," says his friend David Roberts, who once served as his chief petty officer. "It's a tragedy for the accident and for his career."

Waddle, 41, who has released a statement on Japanese television expressing his "most sincere regret" for the accident, is the last person family and friends would have expected to find in this predicament. For two decades the highly respected officer seemed to epitomize the Navy's brightest and best. His unblemished record and sterling reputation won him the Greeneville command, his first, in March 1999 and led him to be tapped often to host visiting VIPs. "He ran the submarine with tremendous control and authority," says Dr. Roger Dunham, 56, an internist and former submariner who spent a day aboard the Greeneville in July 2000 as part of a group that included Titanic director James Cameron. "One of the really tragic things is our country will lose one of the most capable commanding officers I've ever seen."

Waddle seemed to have the right stuff long before he entered the service. Born in Japan, he spent much of his childhood at Air Force bases in that country, Georgia and England, where his father was stationed. ("I know the honor the Japanese families possess," says Waddle. "I die inside knowing their suffering.") After his parents divorced, Waddle moved in 1973 with his mother, Barbara, his new stepfather and younger sister Michelle to Italy, where he quickly impressed classmates at what is now the Naples American High School. "He was smart, and all the kids respected him," says Janet Tricolo, 42, of her former classmate, a straight-A student who was also class president and a standout football player. "Everyone knew Scott would excel at whatever he did."

And so he did, both at the U.S. Naval Academy, from which he graduated in 1981, and during his subsequent rise through the ranks. While stationed in the mid-'80s in Bremerton, Wash., Waddle noticed Jill Huntington, now 39, selling cosmetics in a department store. The couple married in 1986 and have a daughter, Ashley, 13. Since moving into their current home overlooking Honolulu's Pearl Harbor in 1999, the family, active community volunteers, often jog together. "Scott is charismatic, very people-oriented. He never meets a stranger," says his sister Michelle Bunch, 40, a Houston RN. Agrees David Roberts's wife, Beth: "Scott is the most gentle, caring, loving person."

And now a most unhappy man. The collision, he says sadly, "was an accident. But my submarine caused the accident. This is a burden I will carry with me for the rest of my life."

Pam Lambert
Michael Haederle in Austin, Jeannie McCabe in Honolulu, Mary Green in Los Angeles and Ellise Pierce in Houston

  • Contributors:
  • Michael Haederle,
  • Jeannie McCabe,
  • Mary Green,
  • Ellise Pierce.