Sailor tried saving pals
Guilt plagues hero
A teen sailor aboard the US Navy destroyer that collided with a container ship off Japan heroically dived into the seawater gushing into his cabin as he tried to rescue his bunkmates, according to a new report.
But tragically, 19-year-old Brayden Harden was unable to save four of his closest comrades — who died alongside three others on the USS Fitzgerald Saturday morning — and now he’s struggling with survivor’s guilt, his mother says.
“They did what they were trained to do,” mom Mia Sykes told The Associated Press. “You have to realize most of them are 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds living with guilt. But I told him, ‘There’s a reason you’re still here, and make that count.’ ”
Like most of the crew, Harden was asleep when the Philippine-flagged container ship plowed into their vessel — but the impact knocked him out of his bunk and the berth rapidly flooded with water, Sykes said.
Other members of the “Fighting Fitz” thought their boat was under attack, and rushed to man the guns.
The cause of the crash remains unclear, but Japan’s coast guard is investigating why it took almost an hour for the ACX Crystal’s crew to report the collision.
They reported the crash at around 2:30 a.m. But after interviewing the crew, the Japanese coast guard changed the collision time to 1:30 a.m., spokesman Takeshi Aikawa told Reuters on Monday.
Two of three US sailors injured in the crash — including the ship’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson — were released from the hospital in Yokosuka.
ONE night too long ago to mention, I lay in my bunk aboard the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. watching condensation bead up on the hull and realizing suddenly that there was scarcely a half-inch of steel between me and the ocean.
At age 19, it was my first intimation of mortality.
But while that half-inch didn’t seem like a lot, it was a fact of life in the Navy’s so-called tin-can fleet. Destroyers, then and now, are light, fast and maneuverable, but not particularly good at absorbing punishment.
Destroyer crews understand this and practice incessantly at damage control — the art of defending the ship in the face of the most appalling challenges.
So whatever else happened last Friday, 50-some miles at sea off the Japanese coast, the damage–control parties of USS Fitzgerald seem to have gotten it right. The brass called them heroes over the week- end, and I’m not going to argue.
Fitzgerald, at 8,900 tons, was struck directly in its forward starboard quarter by a massive container-cargo freighter, the 29,000ton ACX Crystal, at about 2:30 a.m. Some two-thirds of the crew would’ve been off-duty, presumably sleeping, when the impact occurred, causing substantial hull damage and massive flooding. Seven sailors died.
It’s far too early to draw even speculative conclusions about the collision, but the question is inescapable: How could a nimble warship like Fitzgerald allow herself to be run down by a lumbering, cargo-container laden freighter? Several things stand out.
The collision occurred in an extremely busy shipping lane — some 400 ships per day pass through it — so Fitzgerald should have been on heightened alert.
No matter the formal rules of the road, as a practical matter a 29,000-ton freighter always has the right-of-way so far as a thinskinned destroyer is concerned.
Presumably the freighter was equipped with a transponder, and should have been squawking its position, speed and other relevant data automatically; Fitzgerald should have been reading and processing the information, also automatically, and making command decisions accordingly.
The old war-movie images of radar watch-standers staring at a tiny cathode-ray tube’s fuzzy images is almost are obsolete as wooden hulls.
I’ve sailed as a guest in three warships in recent years — including USS Porter, a sister ship to Fitzgerald, and the Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Springfield — and each of them was liberally equipped with flat-screen data repeaters in the command-control spaces, wardrooms, captain’s stateroom and executive-officer’s and chief petty officers’ quarters.
On the surface ships, there are repeaters on the bridge.
A catastrophic radar failure instantly would’ve been apparent on the monitors because all contacts (vessels large and small, aircraft and radar return from surface clutter) would’ve been lost. All those repeaters would basically go blank — and someone, somewhere, would notice.
Beyond radar, US warships fairly bristle with detection devices that perform across virtually all visual and electronic spectra. And heaven only knows what information is routinely beamed to warships from satellites and other observation platforms.
So it’s very difficult to imagine how a leviathan like ACX Crystal cargo even got close to Fitzgerald — to say nothing of actually ramming her. And yet it happened. Thus questions hang in the air. Sailors, like virtually all young Americans, have their social-media platforms and Fitzgerald crewmembers should be adding to the conversation shortly. Conspiracy theories bloomed elsewhere within hours of the collision. And, given the nation’s toxic politics, it’s only a matter of time before President Trump or Obama administration defense policies are somehow implicated in the affair.
An event so bizarrely inexplicable as this one invites all manner of speculation — and who knows? Some of it may be warranted. But for now, I choose to concentrate on the lives lost at sea last Friday.
The photos are heartbreaking — seven young men beaming into the camera, confident in time and place and proud to be wearing the uniform. But I wonder: Did one of them ever lay awake at night — suddenly, startlingly, aware of how thin was the barrier between the ocean and eternity?
It’s certainly not hard for me to imagine the horror at impact, and the instant understanding of what was happening. The very thought brings me to tears.
God bless them all.
Destroyer destroyed: The damaged section of USS Fitzgerald on Sunday.