Skipper to be relieved of command, sailors face punishment over U.S. warship collision off Japan

Reuters

The U.S. Navy will relieve the two senior officers and the senior enlisted sailor on a U.S. warship that collided with a Philippine containership in June off the coast of Japan, the Navy said on Thursday,

A separate official report released on Thursday contained dramatic accounts of what happened when the freighter hit the USS Fitzgerald, killing seven Navy sailors.

Adm. Bill Moran, deputy chief of naval operations, told reporters the ship’s commanding officer, executive officer and master chief petty officer would be removed. “We’ve lost trust and confidence in their ability to lead,” he said.

Moran said about another nine sailors would face administrative punishments, and he left open the possibility of further action.

While an investigation into the cause of the crash was still underway, Moran said there was enough evidence to take initial action.

“Serious mistakes were made by members of the crew, and there was no benefit to waiting on taking accountability actions,” Moran told reporters.

Multiple U.S. and Japanese investigations are underway into how the USS Fitzgerald, a guided missile destroyer, and the much larger ACX Crystal containership collided in clear weather south of Tokyo Bay in the early hours of June 17.

One pertinent question, said two naval officers who spoke on condition of anonymity, is what was happening at the time in the Fitzgerald’s Combat Information Center, or CIC, where crew members monitor radar that should have detected the approach of a 30,000-ton cargo vessel.

The Navy also released a report that provided new details of the crash and its aftermath.

The collision tore a gash below the Fitzgerald’s waterline, killing seven sailors in what was the greatest loss of life on a U.S. Navy vessel since the USS Cole was bombed in Yemen’s Aden harbor in 2000.

The report said the collision at 1:30 a.m. local time sent water pouring into the U.S. warship.

“Water on deck,” sailors in a berthing started yelling. “Get out,” they shouted as mattresses, furniture and even an exercise bicycle began to float.

Within 60 seconds, the berthing was completely flooded. More than two dozen of the 35 sailors in it 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,” the report said.

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,” the report says.

The commanding officer, Bryce Benson, who is one of the officers who will be relieved of his post, was trapped in his cabin, and five sailors used a sledgehammer to break through the door.

“Even after the door was open, there was a large amount of debris and furniture against the door, preventing anyone from entering or exiting easily,” the report said.

The sailors tied themselves together with a belt and rescued the commanding officer, who by this point was hanging from the side of the ship.