Navy seeks an­swers in deadly ship col­li­sion

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY ANNA FIFIELD

yoko­suka, ja­pan — In the dark of night the weather was clear, with a swell of about six feet.

Near where the sea lanes con­verge for the run into Tokyo Bay, the USS Fitzger­ald was on a rou­tine mis­sion — though in these wa­ters, mariners say, rou­tine means al­ways tak­ing ex­tra cau­tion.

One of the Navy’s most ad­vanced ships, the Aegis guid­ed­mis­sile de­stroyer was equipped with the lat­est and most so­phis­ti­cated radar equip­ment. On­board the 8,315-ton ves­sel was a crew of 300. On the bridge, a full complement of of­fi­cers and en­listed per­son­nel was on duty. The com­mand­ing of­fi­cer, Cmdr. Bryce Ben­son, was in his cabin, on the star­board side. It was about 2 a.m.

Just off­shore from Shi­moda, a pop­u­lar beach re­sort town on a penin­sula at the west­ern en­trance to the Sagami Sea, a con­tainer ship, the Philip­pine-flagged ACX Crys­tal, was sailing east from the port of Nagoya to­ward Tokyo. Four hun­dred ships a day sail through this gulf to­ward Ja­pan’s big­gest port, and the traf­fic, the scat­ter­ing of is­lands, and the lights on land

can make nav­i­ga­tion ex­tremely dif­fi­cult. This is a place where ves­sels — night and day — must take spe­cial care to follow the es­tab­lished rules of the road and steer clear of one another.

Early Satur­day morn­ing, the Crys­tal — for rea­sons that have not been ex­plained — swung around 180 de­grees in that busy water­way and dou­bled back on its course, head­ing nearly due west.

Min­utes later, just be­fore 2:20 a.m., the much larger con­tainer ship hit the U.S. war­ship broad­side, just about amid­ships on the star­board rail, the Navy said. The freighter punched a wide hole into the Fitzger­ald, breach­ing two com­part­ments be­low the wa­ter­line where there were berths for 116 sailors, as well as a ma­chin­ery room.

How­ever, the tim­ing of the col­li­sion is in dis­pute.

The Ja­panese ship­ping com­pany that op­er­ates the Crys­tal, Nip­pon Yusen K.K., said that the col­li­sion hap­pened at 1:30 a.m., an hour be­fore the Navy said it oc­curred. Marine traf­fic data showed the Crys­tal mak­ing a sud­den U-turn be­cause it went back to check on the de­stroyer, com­pany spokes­woman Manami Me­guro said.

The con­tainer ship is now at the port in Yoko­hama, be­ing un­loaded, she said, adding that the com­pany is “fully co­op­er­at­ing with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

A “tremen­dous” amount of wa­ter flooded through the huge gash, in the words of Vice Adm. Joseph P. Au­coin, com­man­der of the U.S. 7th Fleet. Sailors asleep in their berths woke to a pow­er­ful tor­rent of sea­wa­ter. Seven sailors never made it out.

“There wasn’t a lot of time in those spa­ces that were open to the sea, and as you can see now, the ship is still list­ing,” Au­coin said Sun­day at the U.S. naval base at Yoko­suka, 50 miles north­east of the col­li­sion site. Ges­tur­ing to the de­stroyer, docked be­hind him, he added: “They had to fight this ship to keep it above the sur­face. It was trau­matic.”

The col­li­sion crum­pled parts of the ship above deck, too. Ben­son re­ceived a se­vere head wound and his cabin was de­stroyed. “He’s lucky to be alive,” Au­coin said.

The dam­age could have sunk the Fitzger­ald, he said, but for the quick ac­tion of the crew.

Au­coin said the bod­ies of all seven sailors who died were re­cov­ered in the berthing com­part­ment af­ter the wounded ship had been taken into port.

The Navy iden­ti­fied them as Gun­ner’s Mate Sea­man Dakota K. Rigsby, 19, of Palmyra, Va.; Yeo­man 3rd Class Shingo A. Dou­glass, 25, of San Diego; Sonar Tech­ni­cian 3rd Class Ngoc T. Truong Huynh, 25, of Oakville, Conn.; Gun­ner’s Mate 2nd Class Noe Her­nan­dez, 26, of Wes­laco, Tex.; Fire Con­trol­man 2nd Class Car­losvic­tor Gan­zon Sibayan, 23, of Chula Vista, Calif.; Per­son­nel Spe­cial­ist 1st Class Xavier A. Martin, 24, of Halethorpe, Md.; and Fire Con­trol­man 1st Class Gary L. Rehm Jr., 37, of Elyria, Ohio.

When two ves­sels con­verge, the one hav­ing the other to star­board — to the right — is re­quired to yield. That sug­gests that the Crys­tal had the right of way over the Fitzger­ald, which was struck on the star­board side, but the de­tails of their col­li­sion have not been fully in­ves­ti­gated.

The con­tainer ship is nearly four times the size of the de­stroyer, and con­sid­er­ably more cum­ber­some. The war­ship is de­signed to be fast and ag­ile.

“We just don’t ex­pect a very ca­pa­ble war­ship to be so badly dam­aged in a nor­mal, peace­time en­vi­ron­ment,” said Pa­trick Cronin, head of the Asia-Pa­cific pro­gram at the Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Se­cu­rity.

But mariners don’t ex­pect heavy freighters to turn around in the mid­dle of a busy se­away.

In some ways, Cronin said, it didn’t mat­ter who had the right of way. “In my mind, our de­stroyer is a more ca­pa­ble, ag­ile ship, so re­gard­less of who has right of way, our ship should be able to take eva­sive ac­tion,” he said.

Be­cause of the hour when the col­li­sion hap­pened, many sailors were sleep­ing, but a nor­mal bridge crew was on duty, Au­coin said.

There was no in­di­ca­tion of any prob­lem with the nav­i­ga­tional equip­ment, he said.

Pho­tos from the scene showed scrapes on the port side of the Crys­tal’s bow. All 20 of the cargo ship’s crew mem­bers were re­ported un­harmed.

Amer­i­can and Ja­panese in­ves­ti­ga­tions are un­der­way to de­ter­mine how a tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced U.S. war­ship was not able to avoid the con­tainer ship. Au­coin said he would not spec­u­late on how long they would take to get to the bot­tom of what hap­pened.

“This was a se­vere emer­gency,” Au­coin said. “The dam­age was sig­nif­i­cant. This was not a small col­li­sion.”

The de­stroyer, nick­named “the Fight­ing Fitz” within the Navy, is sal­vage­able, but re­pairs prob­a­bly will take months, Au­coin said.

A re­tired naval of­fi­cer who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity said he un­der­stood the col­li­sion had dam­aged some of the Fitzger­ald’s ad­vanced com­bat sys­tems and ra­dio equip­ment.

Ben­son was the first to be evac­u­ated from the dam­aged ves­sel and is be­ing treated at the U.S. naval hospi­tal at Yoko­suka. He was awake but not able to an­swer ques­tions.

Two other sailors were air­lifted off the ship and treated in the hospi­tal for lac­er­a­tions and bruises. The re­mains of the sailors who died also were taken to the hospi­tal for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Ser­vice mem­bers and their rel­a­tives took to the 7th Fleet’s Face­book page to bid the vic­tims “fair winds and fol­low­ing seas, ship­mates” — a mariner’s farewell.

Col­li­sions at sea have be­come rare in re­cent decades as nav­i­ga­tional tech­nol­ogy has im­proved.

The cur­rent case re­called the col­li­sion of the sub­ma­rine USS Greeneville and a train­ing ship be­long­ing to a Ja­panese fish­ery high school off the coast of Hawaii in 2001. The Greeneville sur­faced un­der­neath the Ja­panese ship, sink­ing it and killing nine peo­ple, four of them high school stu­dents.

“Things like this hap­pen be­cause of hu­man er­ror, some­times com­pli­cated by some tech­ni­cal dif­fi­culty,” Cronin said.

“In my mind, our de­stroyer is a more ca­pa­ble, ag­ile ship, so re­gard­less of who has right of way, our ship should be able to take eva­sive ac­tion.” Pa­trick Cronin, head of the Asia-Pa­cific pro­gram at the Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Se­cu­rity

HITOSHI TAKANO/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A photo taken Satur­day shows some of the dam­age to the USS Fitzger­ald above the wa­ter­line. The guided-mis­sile de­stroyer is now in port at the U.S. naval base in Yoko­suka, Ja­pan. The United States and Ja­pan are in­ves­ti­gat­ing why the war­ship and a con­tainer ship col­lided.

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