It has been nearly two weeks since the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, USS Fitzgerald, was rammed by the container ship ACX Crystal near Fitzgerald’s homeport of Yokosuka, Japan. The Fitzgerald was extensively damaged–probably putting it out of service for at least a year–and seven sailors were killed.
Initial reports based on tracking data from ACX Crystal showed it made a sharp right turn before impact. This led to a lot of speculation about a deliberate ramming because the crew of ACX Crystal is all Filipino and it had made previous stops in Pakistan. As it turns out, the sharp turn is actually the container ship broadsiding Fitzgerald and being forced off course, which the autopilot corrected when the two ships separated.
Right now, however, the emphasis seems to be focusing on what was going on in the bridge and combat information center aboard the Fitzgerald.
There should have been lookouts on watch on the port, starboard and stern of the destroyer Fitzgerald — sailors scanning the horizon with binoculars and reporting by headsets to the destroyer’s bridge. At 1:30 a.m. last Saturday, off the coast of Japan south of Tokyo, they could hardly have failed to see the 730-foot freighter ACX Crystal, stacked with more than 1,000 containers, as it closed in.
Radar officers working both on the bridge and in the combat information center below it should have spotted the freighter’s image on their screens, drawing steadily closer. And under standard protocol, the Fitzgerald’s captain, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, should have been awakened and summoned to the bridge to assure a safe passage long before the ships could come near each other.
But none of that happened. The Fitzgerald’s routine cruise in good weather through familiar, if crowded, seas ended in the most lethal Navy accident in years. Seven sailors lost their lives.
As investigators try to figure out what many veteran seamen describe as an incomprehensible collision, they have plenty of mysteries to unravel. In addition to the questions for the destroyer’s crew, there is the peculiar course of the Crystal after the accident, recorded by ship-tracking websites. It raises the possibility that no one was awake, or at least aware of their surroundings, when the two ships hit.
Under strict orders not to talk about what they saw that night, the crew of the Fitzgerald is mostly keeping its counsel while grieving the loss of its shipmates. But one sailor, contacted via social media, offered what may endure as an epitaph for the accident.
“All I can say is,” the sailor wrote to The New York Times, “somebody wasn’t paying attention.”
This is the kicker:
There are many signs that the Fitzgerald had almost no warning of the approaching collision: the fact that the captain was in his cabin and that no shipwide alarm had rousted sailors from their bunks. “As to how much warning they had, I don’t know,” said Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander of the Seventh Fleet, at a news conference on Sunday. “That’s going to have to be found out during the investigation.”
“It looks horrible,” said Gary E. Meyer, owner of a tech company in New Jersey, who served on the Navy ship San Diego and posted a YouTube commentary on the accident that got much attention. “You have three lookouts and you’re running radar,” Mr. Meyer said. “That ship can really accelerate and maneuver. It doesn’t mean they caused the collision, but they’re at fault for not avoiding it.”
Steven M. Morawiec, of Sparta, Wis., who spent 22 years in the Navy and many times took charge of his ship at night as the officer of the deck, said the failure to summon the captain was incomprehensible.
“On my ship, if another ship was expected to get within 4,000 yards, you had to have the captain there beside you,” he said. “If you didn’t wake the captain when you were supposed to, you were toast.”
I don’t pretend to be an authority on the day to day operations on the bridge and CIC of a surface combatant, but these statements comport with conversations I have had with Navy officers. The fact is that being asleep in your bunk will not prevent you from being relieved if something happens, most skippers are on the bridge anytime there is any danger of anything going wrong.
As a commander, I had a couple of “misadventures” that could have ended my career had the dice rolled a bit differently and I’m reluctant to second-guess a man in command in an environment in which I’ve never served. There are questions about the actions of ACX Crystal as well but the major focus right now has to be why no one on the Fitzgerald saw anything either visually or on any of the systems available to them to track surface ships.