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Answers elusive after fatal collision between US destroyer, boxship

Aug 29, 2017 02:05 PM
USS Fitzgerald returns to the U.S. Navy base in Yokosuka, Japan on June 17 after colliding with the containership ACX Crystal. The destroyer was breached by the impact and part of its superstructure collapsed.

Courtesy U.S. Navy

USS Fitzgerald returns to the U.S. Navy base in Yokosuka, Japan on June 17 after colliding with the containership ACX Crystal. The destroyer was breached by the impact and part of its superstructure collapsed.

Seven American sailors died after a loaded containership slammed into the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald in open waters off Japan, and investigators from three countries are trying to determine how it happened.

The collision occurred at about 0130 on June 17, approximately 56 nm southwest of Honshu, Japan, under clear skies in a busy shipping lane. The bow of the Philippines-flagged ACX Crystal struck the Navy destroyer on its starboard side, roughly amidships.

The impact opened a gash below Fitzgerald’s waterline and collapsed a section of the superstructure, with seawater flooding a mechanical space, radio room and two crew berths. Cmdr. Bryce Benson, whose cabin caved in, was hospitalized with two other sailors. ACX Crystal sustained hull damage to its port bow.

The U.S. Coast Guard is leading the marine casualty investigation focused on safety and causal factors. The Japan Transport Safety Board and Philippine Maritime Industry Authority also are investigating. The U.S. Navy is conducting at least two inquiries.

In the days following the incident, Coast Guard investigators boarded both ships, took photos and interviewed crewmembers. “We have concluded our preliminary conversation and data collection with the crew of ACX Crystal,” Lt. Scott Carr wrote in a July 5 email from Yokosuka, Japan, where the Navy operates a large base. “We are still working to finish interviews with crewmembers of USS Fitzgerald.”

He declined to comment on additional details about the case, citing the ongoing investigation. Navy representatives did not respond to email requests for comment on the incident.

NYK Line of Tokyo operates the 730-foot ACX Crystal and Dainichi-Invest Corp. owns the ship. In a prepared statement, NYK Line said the ship’s crew, operator and owner are cooperating with the investigations.

ACX Crystal departed Nagoya, Japan, at about 1730 on June 16 and sailed east toward Tokyo. Fitzgerald appears to have been sailing south when it crossed paths with the cargo ship at about 0130 the next day. U.S. officials initially said the incident happened at about 0220, and the Coast Guard declined to comment on the discrepancy. The cargo ship made a U-turn after the collision and approached the accident site before turning again and continuing its voyage to Tokyo.

Navy Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, described widespread damage to the 22-year-old Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.

“The damage included a significant impact under the ship’s pilothouse on the starboard side and a large puncture below the ship’s waterline, opening the hull to the sea,” Aucoin said at a June 18 news conference, according to transcripts released by the Navy. “The ship suffered severe damage, rapidly flooding three large compartments that included one machinery room and two berthing areas for 116 crew. The commanding officer’s cabin was also directly hit, trapping the CO inside.”

Fitzgerald returned to Yokosuka late on June 17 under diminished power. The seven sailors’ remains were found in the ship’s damaged berthing spaces after Fitzgerald returned to the base.

Tracking records from MarineTraffic.com show ACX Crystal was en route to Tokyo from Nagoya, Japan, when the collision occurred. The 720-foot, 29,000-gt containership is owned by Dainichi-Invest Corp. and operated by NYK Line.

The case spurred intense media coverage, which generated varied and sometimes conflicting accounts. Recent reports suggest the warship continued despite ACX Crystal’s warnings just before the accident. Others have speculated about potential failures aboard the Navy ship, which is outfitted with the latest advanced electronics. Authorities have not discussed these details. 

Capt. Mark Woolley, a former Navy destroyer captain who is now chief of staff at SUNY Maritime College, said something clearly went wrong aboard both ships.

“Whenever you have a collision, I was always taught that both captains are at fault,” he said in a recent interview, noting that he was not familiar with details of the Fitzgerald accident. “The biggest rule of the road is, if you don’t think the other vessel is taking sufficient action to avoid a collision, you are obligated to take sufficient action to avoid one.”

Woolley, who retired from the Navy seven years ago, said Navy ships like Fitzgerald typically have crewmembers watching the ship and its surroundings from the deck, the bridge and spaces below with advanced radar and navigation equipment.

Navy captains, like their commercial counterparts, issue standing orders for when the captain is not on the bridge. These orders typically require notification of the officer when another vessel comes within a certain distance of the Navy ship. Depending on the circumstances, Woolley often required notification if a vessel came within 5,000 yards of his ship.

It’s not clear if Fitzgerald sounded a general alarm before the incident. Woolley also wondered if anyone informed the captain about what was unfolding on and around his ship.

ACX Crystal is operated by NYK Line of Tokyo and Dainichi-Invest Corp. owns the ship.

Courtesy Massmond Maritime

“The big question I have is, did anyone ever call captain? Did he ever get a vote?” Woolley said.

Authorities have not said if crew aboard the ships spoke over radio before the accident, although such communication is common between military and commercial vessels.

“They are going to look at this,” Woolley said. “It is a hard thing to teach people and it takes practice to teach a guy how to effectively communicate with another ship and clearly declare one’s intentions.

“This is my personal opinion, but we have a new generation of officers who are used to doing texting and chatrooms and blogs,” Woolley added. “When I was an officer, you got on radio and talked to someone.”

Another unanswered question: Could the nimble destroyer have done more to avoid the lumbering containership? Woolley said Arleigh Burke-class ships are extremely maneuverable. They quickly can accelerate to 30 knots or faster, turn sharply and stop in their own length.

But, he added, someone has to be watching to take evasive action.

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