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Navy report details crash scene inside destroyer Fitzgerald

USS Fitzgerald docked at Tien Sa port in Da Nang, Vietnam. (Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)

A U.S. Navy report released Wednesday uncovered numerous failures in leadership, training and seamanship that caused deadly collisions over the summer involving the destroyers McCain and Fitzgerald.

Claiming the lives of 17 sailors, the crashes in the busy waters of the western Pacific Ocean highlight a Navy struggling to train, test, credential and deploy warships in the Japan-based 7th Fleet’s area of operations, a region stretching from the Arctic south past Australia.

“Both of these accidents were preventable, and the respective investigations found multiple failures by watch standers that contributed to the incidents,” said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson in a written statement. “We must do better.”

Vowing to ensure that such collisions never occur again, Richardson urged “our culture, from the most junior sailor to the most senior commander” to value and achieve the highest standards of performance.

“We will spend every effort needed to correct these problems and be stronger than before,” he said.

Completed on Oct. 23, the 71-page unclassified report was scathing in its denunciations of the leadership teams aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers and detailed in the harrowing descriptions of what sailors faced below deck when their vessels were struck by commercial ships.

Shortly before the ACX Crystal speared into the U.S. Navy destroyer Fitzgerald on June 17 in the Philippine Sea, the Navy officer of the deck and the team on the bridge were sailing too fast in waters jammed with commercial vessels.

They failed to veer away from the incoming ship as required by the International Rules of the Nautical Road, never notified other craft of danger and weren’t even looking on the starboard side of the bridge, focusing only to the port, before the Crystal appeared and struck them.

The Fitz’s lax radar operators failed to properly tune and adjust the equipment to gain an accurate picture, navigators were blithely unaware of the expected flow of maritime traffic and no one turned on the automated identification system that would have provided updates in real time of commercial vessels that are tracked by satellites.

And the warship’s leadership team pushed a punishing schedule of inspections and certification testing that fatigued the crew and then failed to ensure enough rest in the hours before tragedy unfurled.

Capt. Lawrence Brennan, the Navy’s former senior admiralty counsel who now teaches at Fordham University’s School of Law, told The San Diego Union-Tribune that the report establishes a shocking level of “crew incompetence and unseaworthiness” that was punctuated by violations of long-established standard operating procedures, international law and the norms that guide the navigation of all oceangoing vessels.

“It’s almost as if no one on the Fitzgerald or the McCain looked at the rules of the road or read a manual about how to operate a ship at sea,” said Brennan, who served in the Navy for 33 years and investigated several major ship accidents.

In the predawn Aug. 21 collision of the destroyer McCain east of Singapore, the bridge leadership and crew bungled the steering of the warship, losing control of the vessel as it lurched left toward the incoming oil tanker Alnic MC, according to the Navy report.

Multiple bridge watch standers lacked even a “basic level of knowledge of the steering control system,” investigators determined, and other sailors tasked with training them “had an insufficient level of knowledge to effectively maintain appropriate rigor in the qualification program.”

In fact, the most senior officer in charge of maintaining standards “lacked a general understanding” of how to transfer steering between consoles.

Neither the unidentified officer of the deck nor the conning officer on duty attended a navigation brief on the afternoon preceding the collision, a meeting that’s designed to provide maximum awareness of potential safety risks.

The McCain’s crew failed to sound five short warning blasts or hail the bridge of the Alnic after it lost control, efforts that might have prevented the crash, according to the report.

“Sounding the alarm is vital,” Brennan said. “That wakes you up. It gets you moving. In my opinion, that failure to sound the warning alarm to the commercial vessel and general quarters for the crew cost lives.”

The crashes of the McCain and Fitzgerald had been preceded by a Jan. 31 accident in which the cruiser Antietam ran aground on rocks lining the Japanese coast. Less than five months later, the San Diego-based cruiser Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing boat, but those incidents weren’t fatal.

Two of the seven sailors killed on the Fitzgerald were from the San Diego area — Yeoman 3rd Class Shingo Alexander Douglass, 25, of Oceanside, and Fire Controlman 2nd Class Carlos Victor Ganzon “Hitch” Sibayan, 23, of Chula Vista.

They were drowned after the ACX Crystal’s bow stabbed through the below deck steel, sluicing water into their sleeping quarters and triggering flooding that was exacerbated by a crushed fire main and pipes that spurted firefighting foam.

Sailors screamed “Water on deck!” and “Get out!” but it’s unclear in the report if Douglass or Sibayan heard them.

Investigators determined that some their shipmates heard neither those calls nor the peals of alarms echoing through the heavily listing warship.

One sailor awoke only after he’d been jerked from his rack into the rising water, mattresses and an exercise bike floating between wall lockers that bobbed in the murk.

Guided often only by dim battle lanterns that kick on after a section loses electrical power, one submerged sailor swimming for safety took what he thought was his final breath before being yanked from the water, red-faced, his eyes bloodshot.

Another found an air pocket and sucked in a breath before swimming for an escape hole. He blacked out along the way but made it to another section and survived.

Five sailors pounded away with a sledgehammer, kettlebell and their own bodies at the stateroom hatch to their trapped skipper, Cmdr. Bryce Benson. Once they crawled into the cabin, they found that the ship’s steel skin and outer bulkhead had been peeled away.

Seeing the night sky through hanging wires and torn metal, they tied themselves together to form a makeshift harness to retrieve Benson, who was hanging from the side of the ship.

In the weeks after the destroyer disasters, the Navy brass fired Benson, his executive officer Cmdr. Sean Babbitt and their senior enlisted sailor, Command Master Chief Brice Baldwin.

They also relieved the McCain’s skipper Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez and his second-in-command Cmdr. Jessie L. Sanchez, plus Rear Adm. Charles Williams, commander of the McCain’s Combined Task Force 70, and Capt. Jeffery Bennett, commodore of their Destroyer Squadron 15.

Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the three-star commander of the Japan-based 7th Fleet, was dismissed shortly before his planned retirement, too.

“But an important thing to remember is that the same two ships that performed so poorly at seamanship performed so brilliantly at damage control,” Brennan said. “They fought and saved their ships. Sailors that can be trained to do that so flawlessly can be educated to do other things right.”


© 2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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