Asia PacificSea

US Navy crews failed to follow basic procedures in fatal collisions

Numerous failings at fault for 7th Fleet's USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain collisions

The U.S. Navy crews at the helm of the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain were at fault for deadly collisions earlier this year, failing to follow basic procedures, according to an internal report released on Wednesday.

Seventeen sailors were killed in the two incidents and dozens more were wounded. Defense News first reported that the Navy has found that sailors and their superior officers failed to follow procedures.

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

Both ships are in the 7th Fleet, and the collisions have called into question the Navy’s leadership in the Asia-Pacific region. Fleet commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin was dismissed from duty two days after the McCain incident.

USS Fitzgerald Commanding Officer's Stateroom damage – external
Damage to the Commanding Officer’s Stateroom of the USS Fitzgerald which collided with the container ship ACX Crystal on June 17, 2017. Image: US Navy

USS Fitzgerald crew ignored an entire side of the ship

The Fitzgerald collided with the container ship ACX Crystal on June 17 off the coast of Japan, killing seven of the destroyer’s crew. Numerous things went wrong ahead of the incident, according to the summary report released by the Navy.

“The sailor or sailors assigned to look out for hazards were literally looking the other way the whole time,” looking out the port (left) side and ignoring three ships on the starboard, or right, side, Defense News reported.

The Fitzgerald did not chart its navigation patterns and came close to several other ships, including within 650 feet of another merchant vessel prior to the collision with the Crystal. The deck officer never notified the captain about it, according to the report.

USS Fitzgerald lounge damage
Damage to a lounge in berthing in the USS Fitzgerald which collided with the container ship ACX Crystal on June 17, 2017. Image: US Navy

Below deck, the Fitzgerald’s radar was not adjusted to “maintain an accurate picture of other ships in the area,” the report said.

In a breach of standing orders, the deck officer failed to notify the captain that the Fitzgerald was approaching the Crystal. The deck officer failed to try to make radio contact with the Crystal and only to tried to steer away from the merchant ship a minute before the crash.

“The Officer of the Deck, the person responsible for safe navigation of the ship, exhibited poor seamanship by failing to maneuver as required, failing to sound the danger signal and failing to attempt to contact CRYSTAL on Bridge to Bridge radio,” the report said.

The rest of the watch team failed to “provide situational awareness” to the deck officer, as did additional teams in the combat information center.

In its after-accident report filed in June, the Crystal’s captain Ronald Advincula said the Fitzgerald failed to respond to multiple warnings ahead of the collision.

The commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, only found out about the collision when the Crystal broke through the ship’s exterior, entering his room, according to the report.

USS Fitzgerald Commanding Officer's Stateroom damage, internal
Damage to the Commanding Officer’s Stateroom of the USS Fitzgerald which collided with the container ship ACX Crystal on June 17, 2017. Image: US Navy

Massive confusion on board the USS McCain

The McCain was involved in a collision with the merchant ship Alnic MC on August 21 while traveling near the Straits of Malacca. Ten sailors were killed in the crash and another five were injured. The ship’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez, and executive officer, Cmdr. Jessie L. Sanchez, were relieved from duty last month.

Alfredo Sanchez ordered the McCain’s crew to set sea and anchor at 6 a.m., an hour later than recommended, to give the crew extra rest before the ship entered the busy Strait of Malacca.

As a result, the master helmsman was not present when the junior sailor at the helm began to have trouble steering. According to the report, Sanchez ordered a second sailor to help control the ship and put the two at separate positions. The sailors accidentally changed all of the configurations to the second control console, preventing the helmsman from steering the ship.

Believing the ship was suffering from a mechanical failure, the sailors tried to fix the problem and caused massive confusion. Sanchez ordered the ship to slow down to five knots, but the sailor controlling the propellers only slowed one, causing the McCain to turn sharply left toward the Alnic.

According to the Navy, the McCain changed its steering configuration numerous times before colliding with the Alnic at 5:23 a.m. Most of the sailors killed in the incident were likely crushed to death or drowned when water flooded in the 28-foot hole in the side of the ship.

USS John S. McCain towed for transport
Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) is towed to heavy lift transport vessel MV Treasure, October 5, 2017. Image: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton
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