Sailor tried sav­ing pals

Guilt plagues hero

New York Post - - NEWS - By YARON STEIN­BUCH and RUTH BROWN

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.

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