US warship's top officers removed after collision

A service for a USS Fitzgerald crew member, held at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, on Wednesday. Seven US sailors died after the warship collided with a Philippine cargo ship off Tokyo Bay.
A service for a USS Fitzgerald crew member, held at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, on Wednesday. Seven US sailors died after the warship collided with a Philippine cargo ship off Tokyo Bay.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

First public admission by US Navy that crew error contributed to deadly accident in June

WASHINGTON/TOKYO • The United States Navy has removed the two senior officers and the senior enlisted sailor on an American warship that almost sank off the coast of Japan in June after it was struck by a Philippine container ship, said the navy yesterday.

Multiple investigations have yet to apportion blame for the accident that killed seven US sailors aboard the USS Fitzgerald, a guided missile destroyer.

However, the punishments are the first public admission by the US Navy that mistakes by the crew contributed to the deadliest incident on a US warship since Islamist extremists bombed the USS Cole in Yemen's Aden harbour in 2000.

"The collision was avoidable and both ships demonstrated poor seamanship. Within Fitzgerald, flawed watch stander teamwork and inadequate leadership contributed to the collision," the US Seventh Fleet said in a media release.

In the first detailed account from someone directly involved in the collision in the early hours of June 17, the captain of cargo ship ACX Crystal said in a report seen by Reuters that his crew signalled the Fitzgerald with flashing lights around 10 minutes before the accident. The warship did not respond or alter course, it said.

The commercial vessel had the right of way under maritime rules and the Fitzgerald, which was hit on the starboard side, was likely at fault.

Several US and Japanese investigations are still under way into how the Fitzgerald and the much larger ACX Crystal collided in clear weather south of Tokyo Bay.

POOR SEAMANSHIP

The collision was avoidable and both ships demonstrated poor seamanship. Within Fitzgerald, flawed watch stander teamwork and inadequate leadership contributed to the collision.

THE US SEVENTH FLEET

One pertinent issue, said two naval officers who spoke on condition of anonymity, is what was happening at the time in the Fitzgerald's combat information centre, where crew members monitor radar that should have detected the approach of a 30,000-ton cargo vessel.

Commander Bryce Benson was relieved "due to a loss of confidence in his ability to lead", while Commander Sean Babbitt and Master Chief Petty Officer Brice Baldwin "contributed to the lack of watch stander preparedness and readiness that was evident in the events leading up to the collision", said the Seventh Fleet.

Several junior officers have also been relieved, and administrative action has been taken against other members of the watch teams.

Deputy naval operations chief Bill Moran told a media briefing earlier in Washington that about nine sailors would face administrative punishments. He said: "Serious mistakes were made by members of the crew, and there was no benefit to waiting on taking accountability actions."

An official report released on Thursday contained dramatic accounts of what happened when the freighter hit the Fitzgerald.

The collision, at 1.30am local time, tore a gash below the Fitzgerald's waterline and sent water pouring into the ship, said the report. "Water on deck. Get out!" sailors in a berthing area started yelling.

The berthing was flooded within 60 seconds, but over two dozen of the 35 sailors inside escaped. The last sailor to be rescued was in the bathroom at the time of the collision. "Lockers were floating past him... At one point, he was pinned between the lockers and the ceiling of Berthing 2, but was able to reach for a pipe in the ceiling to pull himself free," said the report.

Two sailors stayed at the foot of the ladder in the compartment to help others escape. "The choices made by these two sailors likely saved the lives of at least two of their shipmates," said the report.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2017, with the headline 'US warship's top officers removed after collision'. Print Edition | Subscribe