Asia Pacific

'Sudden turn' into tanker's path by Yokosuka-based U.S. warship led to deadly 2017 collision: Singapore


A “sudden turn” by Yokosuka-based American warship the USS John S. McCain led to its collision with an oil tanker last year off Singapore that resulted in the death of 10 sailors, a report by the city-state’s government said Thursday.

Releasing the results of an investigation into the incident by its Transport Safety Investigation Bureau, Singapore’s transport ministry said a “series of missteps” by the destroyer’s crew and insufficient action by those of the Liberian-registered oil tanker, the Alnic MC, contributed to the accident.

The vessels smashed into each other before dawn on August 21, 2017, in the busy shipping lanes around the Strait of Malacca. There were no casualties among the tanker’s crew.

The McCain, which belongs to the U.S. Navy 7th fleet, had left its home port of Yokosuka, Japan, last on May 26 for a scheduled six-month deployment in the Western Pacific. It was about to make a scheduled call at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base when the mishap occurred as it was approaching the Singapore Strait, about 50 nautical miles east of the city-state.

The accident resulted in the deaths of 10 sailors from the U.S. navy ship. The commander of the McCain is facing charges including negligent homicide and dereliction of duty, the U.S. Navy said in January, after its own investigation into the incident found “multiple failures” by the ship’s crew.

Singapore said its 35-page report did not blame any organization or individual for the fatal crash, but found that the warship made an abrupt turn after a transfer of controls caused confusion among the crew.

“The collision… happened because of a sudden turn to port (left) by JSM (John S. McCain), which caused it to head into the path of the (tanker),” the report said. Another contributing factor was that only three crew were on duty on the bridge of the Alnic, possibly hampering its ability to quickly take evasive action, the investigation also found.

According to the report, the trouble started after the chief officer on the McCain noticed a crew member was struggling to handle both the steering of the vessel and the propulsion at the same time, and issued an order for the propulsion control task be taken over by another member of the crew.

The transfer of propulsion control, which is responsible for the speed of a vessel, between control stations on the ship was “not properly executed” as the “steering control was also inadvertently transferred,” causing some confusion.

The report noted that several sailors on watch aboard the McCain during the collision had been assigned from another warship with steering control systems that were “significantly different.”

“These differences were not compensated for. Inadequacies in training and familiarization before the task allocation may have contributed to the actions on John S. McCain,” it said.

The collision took place within three minutes of the warship’s sudden turn, the report said, adding however that the actions taken by the tanker’s crew “were insufficient to avoid” the crash. “When the bridge team of Alnic MC saw the USS John S. McCain turning, it presumed that the (warship) would be able to safely pass ahead,” it said.

The McCain also did not signal by sound or light to attract the other ship’s attention prior to the collision, the report said.

At the time there were only three crew on duty on the bridge of the Alnic, even though company procedure required five when transiting the busy Singapore Strait. The Alnics’ “master did not have full support on the bridge” and “he also did not utilize his team effectively,” the report said.

The incident came months after another destroyer, the USS Fitzgerald, smashed into a Philippine-flagged cargo ship off Japan in June 2017, leaving seven sailors dead.

In an earlier report on the two separate collisions, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson said both were “preventable and the respective investigations found multiple failures by watchstanders that contributed to the incidents.”

The U.S. Navy said in November that the McCain collision “resulted primarily from complacency, over-confidence and lack of procedural compliance.”

“In particular, McCain’s commanding officer disregarded recommendations from his executive officer, navigator and senior watch officer to set sea and anchor watch teams in a timely fashion,” it said.