First, note the photographs above. You can see the damage to the navy destroyer, USS Fitzgerald, is significant whilst the damage to the container ship ACX Crystal is minor. These two photographs provide a massive amount of information to an attentive observer regarding the tragedy, with only one conclusion. The OOD/Captain of the USS Fitzgerald is directly responsible for the loss of those seven sailors and will likely face a courts martial. In my opinion criminal charges should be considered.
First, the story from AP.org:
US, JAPAN SEARCH FOR 7 NAVY SAILORS, PUZZLE OVER SHIP CRASH
YOKOSUKA, Japan (AP) — U.S. and Japanese vessels and aircraft searched Saturday for seven American sailors who were missing after their Navy destroyer collided before dawn with a container ship four times its size off the coast of Japan.
The USS Fitzgerald was back at its home port in Yokosuka Naval Base south of Tokyo by sunset Saturday, its crew lined up on deck. The Philippine-flagged container ship was berthed at Tokyo’s Oi wharf, where officials began questioning crew members about the cause of the nighttime crash.
After helping stabilize the USS Fitzgerald, the destroyer USS Dewey joined other American and Japanese vessels and aircraft in the search for the missing sailors.
At least three other Navy sailors were injured in the collision.
Now, some damning facts.
Examining the photographs, you can see major damage to the USS Fitzgerald’s starboard side, almost amidships and directly under the bridge. The corresponding damage to the ACX Crystal is at the port bow where there is a remarkable mismatch in deck height.
That in and of itself tells me that the USS Fitzgerald turned across the path of the container ship, the container ship not at a 90-degree angle but at an obtuse angle to the USS Fitzgerald. That tells me avoidance was likely under way but initiated too late by the naval vessel.
Absent war or other factors it would be the primary duty of the smaller vessel, the USS Fitzgerald, to avoid collision. Because of navigational issues on the part of the container ship ACX Crystal with regard to handling characteristics — that is to say, its inability to stop or maneuver in any sort of rapid or noteworthy manner involving distance or time — the maritime “rules of the road” provide favor to the container ship. Particularly damning is this.
Conditions were clear at the time of the collision, though Yutaka Saito of the coast guard said the area is particularly busy with sea traffic.
That information becomes critical when one reads this paragraph.
The U.S. 7th Fleet said in a statement that the crash damaged two berthing spaces, a machinery room and the radio room. Most of the more than 200 sailors aboard would have been asleep in their berths at the time of the pre-dawn crash.
The ACX Crystal possesses what is termed a “bulbous bow” under the waterline, which exists to smooth the flow of water around the hull and minimize drag thus yielding a slightly greater speed, range, stability in rougher weather and fuel efficiency. I posit it’s not impossible that the bulbous bow of the ACX Crystal may have impacted the USS Fitzgerald under the waterline and directly into the berthing areas. I submit the missing sailors may have been crushed inside the naval ship and/or sucked directly out to sea from the resulting impact.
The USS Fitzgerald’s captain, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, was airlifted early Saturday to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Yokosuka and was in stable condition with a head injury, the Navy said. Two other crew members suffered cuts and bruises and were evacuated. It was unclear how many others may have been hurt.
This suggests to me Captain Benson was on the bridge and in full charge of the navy ship and not an OOD or Officer of the Deck. It makes me wonder why the captain was on the bridge that early in the morning (2:30 AM local time) unless he was awakened by personnel due to calamitous and emergent conditions.
Some very important comparisons. The ACX Crystal is a Phillipines-flagged cargo container vessel built in 2008, working for the Japanese NYK Line. It is a 29,060 ton ship with a dead weight tonnage of 39,565 tons. It is 730 feet long with a capacity of 2,858 containers though at the time of collision it was carrying 1,080 containers. Maximum speed is 25 knots or 28 mph. In such a high traffic area the ship was likely not steaming at such a speed as the captain would be aware of its inherent handling deficiencies in such conditions. MarineTraffic.com indicates the ship had been traveling at between 16 and 18 knots. There were no injuries whatsoever on the ACX Crystal, which also says much about the overall incident and nature of ship dynamics.
In contrast, the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer launched in 1994 with a full displacement of 9,000 tons at a length of 505 feet, with a maximum speed greater than 30 knots, or 34 mph. It has the AN/SPY-1D 3D Radar, AN/SPS-67 (V)2 Surface Search Radar or AN/SPS-73(V)12 Surface Search Radar system on board. Suffice to say these are more sophisticated systems than those of a merchant vessel.
Some amateur marine enthusiasts are indicating the ACX Crystal may have deviated from its original course twice.
Still and all, as per the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, the onus for avoidance was on the USS Fitzgerald due to a wide variety of factors to include ability to avoid, vessel dynamics and ship handling.
The situation immediately brings to my mind the 2001 collision between the Japanese fishing training boat Ehime Maru and the USS Greeneville, a Los Angeles-class attack submarine, when the sub surfaced underneath the boat during an emergency ballast blow surfacing maneuver demonstration for some VIP civilians on board. In all, nine civilian crew members were killed on the Ehime Maru, including four high school students.
The captain and applicable crew of the USS Greeneville received non-judicial punishment.
UPDATED INFORMATION ON SUNDAY:
Two points: first, from the NavyTimes.com:
Navy search and rescue crews have discovered the bodies of seven missing sailors from the destroyer Fitzgerald in flooded berthing compartments, two defense officials confirmed to Navy Times.
Second, from the WSJ.com:
In a period of seconds, a 29,000 ton cargo ship loaded with containers plowed into its right side, crushing a large section of the destroyer’s main structure, including the captain’s cabin and sleeping quarters for 116 sailors below the waterline. Seawater flooded in through a large gash.
As the crew scrambled to save themselves and the ship, seven sailors didn’t make it out of the berthing area. Their bodies were recovered by divers after the ship crawled to the port of Yokosuka.
Badly injured, the captain, Bryce Benson, escaped from his cabin. He was airlifted to a nearby hospital where he was receiving emergency treatment on Sunday before being questioned.
This now clearly indicates the sailors were trapped or crushed and drowned down in their berths below the waterline, and would also account for the injuries to the captain as his cabin was specifically affected as well. Therefore we now know that another officer, not the captain, was OOD during the collision at night.
I suggest this will become a criminal proceeding. I cannot think of a ready excuse for a situation such as this occurring in the modern US Navy absent terrible negligence.