Just days before the USS John S. McCain was involved in the U.S. Navy’s latest collision-at-sea, the Navy released a report on the June accident involving the USS Fitzgerald which caused the death of seven sailors. The report is a supplement to the line of duty investigation being conducted and details the circumstances of the deaths of seven sailors who drowned after the berthing compartment in which they were sleeping became flooded in under a minute.
Because of the collision the Fitzgerald’s commanding officer, executive officer and the top enlisted sailor were relieved of their duties and will face non-judicial punishment for their roles in the destroyer’s accident. The twin at-sea accidents have caused ripples across the Navy.
Adm. John Richardson, the Chief of Naval Operations, has asked for an “operational pause” across the surface fleet. And according to Navy Times the commanding officer of the Pacific Fleet has questioned the focus of the fleet, saying in a message to the leadership of all warships that these recent accidents have occurred while the ships were conducting “the most basic of operations.”
Even China is concerned about the U.S. Navy’s ability to safely operate its ships in the Pacific region. According to the South China Morning Post, China is worried that the real threat of the U.S. Navy is not to their military, but rather to commercial shipping.
USS Fitzgerald has remained at her homeport of Yokosuka, Japan, since shortly after the collision but yesterday the Navy announced that the ship will travel back to the U.S. for repairs as Huntington Ingalls Industries in Pascagoula, Mississippi, will repair the destroyer. No date was given though it is expected the contract will be issued before the end of the year.
The supplemental report issued on August 17 provides a harrowing look at the struggle for those sailors sleeping in the affected berthing compartment. The large hole from the bulbous bow of the ACX Crystal allowed so much water to rush in quickly that “no damage control efforts would have prevented” the berthing compartment from flooding completely within two minutes. The window for survival was minimal but the sailors approached the task with calmness and an orderly process that allowed most to survive.
The Fitzgerald left Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan early on the morning of June 16 for a normal underway period that was scheduled to be just routine training of ship and crew. Less than 24 hours later, early on the morning of June 17 the destroyer was still within sight of land. The sea was calm with waves between two to four feet. The moon was bright with scattered cloud cover and visibility was unrestricted. Fitzgerald was operating in the standard condition of “darkened ship,” meaning all exterior lighting was secured except for the navigation lights, and interior lighting was set to red to reflect the nighttime conditions. The destroyer was set for condition “Modified Zebra,” which means that all doors and hatches at the main deck and decks below were shut to help create boundaries within the ship that could contain flooding or fire should one occur while underway. Should a casualty happen, these boundaries would hopefully compartmentalize the damage, preventing fire or flooding to spread rapidly throughout the ship.
Approximately 1:30 a.m., the Fitzgerald and the ACX Crystal collided. As previously disclosed, the port (left) side of the ACX Crystal’s bow struck the starboard (right) side of the destroyer above the waterline, while beneath the waves, the bulbous bow of the container ship hit the warship, puncturing the hull and creating a hole nearly 13 by 17 feet wide. The second and third decks were torn into and water poured into Auxiliary Machine Room 1 (AUX 1) and pushed the wall separating AUX 1 from Berthing 2 inward, bending it to a nearly 90-degree angle. Berthing 2, with beds for 42 sailors, was now wide open to the on-rushing sea.
Immediately following the collision, Fitzgerald had a 14-degree list to port, meaning the ship had been pushed to the left by the freighter. However, as the water rushed into the ship through Berthing 2 below the waterline, the destroyer became heavier and sank further into the water and the port list quickly became a starboard list of seven degrees.
External communications were immediately lost and power to the forward part of the ship was also lost. The running, or navigation, lights atop the destroyer’s mast were duly changed to what is called “red over red.” One red light over another is the internationally recognized indication that the vessel is not able to maneuver as expected as an incident has occurred.
As mentioned above, Berthing 2 is able to house 42 sailors, located two decks below the Fitzgerald’s main deck. The space runs from the port side to the starboard side and is approximately 29 feet long by 40 feet across. The overhead, or ceiling, is about 10 feet high. The 42 beds are stacked three high, meaning there are 14 stacks of three and the space also included a small lounge which would have had a TV, table and chairs and a sofa for those assigned to Berthing 2 to relax. At 1:30 a.m., the space was lit only via red light to match that the of “darkened ship.” Berthing 2 has three points of exit, two of which are on the port side.
Only 35 of the possible 42 sailors were in Berthing 2 at the time of impact. Five others were on watch and two were not on-board. Twenty-eight sailors would escape the compartment but seven, fatally, would not. As would be expected, confusion ruled in the moments following the collision. Some sailors who survived reported that they were unsure what had happened while others slept through those first moments. Almost immediately, warning cries went out including, “Get out,” and “Water on deck!”
It has been estimated by survivors that Berthing 2 was nearly flooded within up to 60 seconds. Water was waist deep as sailors began to scramble up a ladder to safety as all manner of debris began swirling around the rushing water. Mattresses, furniture, wall lockers and even an exercise bicycle clogged the aisles, making the task of escaping for those trapped all the more perilous. With power out to the forward portion of the ship, not even the red lighting was on. Instead, lighting was coming from battle lanterns which hang from the ceiling. In near total darkness, dodging debris and the onrushing sea, 35 sailors were guided only by the sporadic beams of light coming from the suspended battle lanterns.
Despite the situation’s calamity, sailors reported that the attempted exodus from Berthing 2 was calm and orderly. The sailors lined up on the port side of the berthing space to exit via the port side ladder. There was no rush, no pushing and fighting to get out first, and sailors were helping other sailors who were in need, even though at this point water was up to most of their necks.
At the bottom of the port ladder, two sailors were leading the exit from Berthing 2, making sure the egress was done in the quickest manner possible as the water continued to rise from the hole in Fitzgerald’s hull. With it no longer possible to be at the bottom of the ladder, the two sailors were eventually forced to exit. Making sure no other sailors could be seen in the churning water, these two climbed the ladder and moved to the next level, moving though the watertight scuttle that—once closed—would keep the flooding contained below. Though now in Berthing 1 and in relative safety, these two sailors continued to search for those who may be trapped below. Reaching into the dark water over and over again hoping to find someone still struggling to escape Berthing 2, their efforts were rewarded, as two more shipmates were found. Those two were completely underwater, pulled through the watertight scuttle and away from certain death.
The last sailor to be pulled through the watertight scuttle told investigators that he had been in the head (bathroom) at the time of impact. The rushing water had knocked him to the floor and he had to fight his way out of the bathroom. Lockers from the berthing area were all around him, and at one point he was pinned between the ceiling and a locker as the water rose within the compartment. Pulling himself free by grabbing onto piping in the ceiling he moved toward the only light that he was able to see. The light was coming from the port ladder through the watertight scuttle where the two sailors who had been orchestrating the exit were still trying to find others to save. Swimming to the light, he was pulled from the water and through the scuttle. This sailor said he had taken his last breath and had already ingested water when he was grabbed.
Even after that, with more seawater pouring in, the opening above Berthing 2 into Berthing 1 began to flood but the two sailors who were leading the effort continued to reach into the water hoping to grab someone who might still be saved. They tried yelling into the compartment but there was no response and no shadows were seen in the water. By this point, the water coming into Berthing 1 was shooting through the watertight scuttle and with no indication that anyone else was trying to reach them, the decision was made to shut the scuttle. That scuttle could only be partially closed, though, forcing the sailors to evacuated climb a ladder to the next-highest level, which was the main level. Here they secured a hatch and watertight scuttle, keeping the flooding from getting any higher in the ship.
Twenty-eight sailors escaped Berthing 2 with 27 of them using the port ladder. Only one sailor escaped through the starboard side. That sailor was in his bed at the top of a stack of three. At the time of the collision, the sailor tried to get out, but in doing so accidentally kicked another sailor and decided to wait until he could exit his bed without hitting anyone else. When he finally went to jump out, the water level was already at chest level. Moving against the sea and dodging lounge furniture, he quickly went underwater. Finding a small air pocket, he took a few breaths and began to swim for his life. At some point during his escape, he lost consciousness and does not remember how he escaped from Berthing 2. The sailor remembers coming out of the waters into Berthing 1 and escaping to the main deck.
The seven sailors who died on Fitzgerald had beds that were closet to the point of impact on the starboard side and directly in the path of the flooding seawater.
The Fitzgerald suffered other structural damage which included the Officer Stateroom; Repair Locker Number 2 passageway; the Combat Information Center passageway; multiple fan rooms from a space, the name of which was redacted; Combat Systems Maintenance Central airlock and ladderwell; Electronic Workshop Number 1; and the Commanding Officer’s stateroom and bathroom.
The destroyer’s captain, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, was asleep in his cabin when the port bow of the ACX Crystal struck the cabin directly, trapping him inside. Benson was able to call the bridge for assistance and five sailors responded to rescue him. Using a sledgehammer, kettlebell and their bodies to bang against the twisted bulkheads and door, they pried the door open far enough for one sailor to squeeze through. Three other sailors were able to clear debris from the door area and enter the officer’s cabin. The outer skin of the ship was gone and the sailors reported that the night sky could clearly be seen. Tying themselves together to form a chain they rescued Benson, who had been left hanging from the side of the ship after the impact.
The final reports have yet to be written regarding the Fitzgerald collision, and the McCain investigations have just begun. On the day the report was released, the Seventh Fleet, which has command of the region where the destroyers were struck, laid most of the blame on the Fitzgerald’s crew: “The collision was avoidable and both ships (ACX Crystal and Fitzgerald) demonstrated poor seamanship. With Fitzgerald, flawed watch stander teamwork and inadequate leadership contributed to the collision that claimed the lives of seven Fitzgerald Sailors, injured three more, and damaged both ships.”
There will always be failures and Fitzgerald is one of them. The Navy is usually pretty good at taking its lessons learned and implementing changes that will correct the mistakes. Unfortunately for the crew of the McCain, which is part of the same destroyer squadron, the example of poor leadership and complacency exhibited by its sistership Fitzgerald, were not heeded. And, again, sailors are dead.
Gary Wetzel is an experienced military and aviation writer who has authored two books examining the combat operations of the A-10 Warthog in Afghanistan. He also served over six years in the U.S Navy as sonar technician aboard USS Philadelphia and USS Dallas.