A skipper’s thoughts on the Fitzgerald

A skipper’s thoughts on the Fitzgerald


By Capt. John Byron, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
Best Defense office of naval affairs

On June 17, USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) was transiting the busy waters below Tokyo Bay. A bit after midnight she collided with the 30,000 ton container ship ACX Crystal. The merchant ship’s bow smashed into the destroyer’s starboard side just aft of the bridge. The superstructure topside was crushed inward and, below the waterline, the bulbous underwater body of the big merchant ship penetrated the destroyer and flooded at least one berthing compartment. The ship’s crew struggled successfully to keep the Fitzgerald afloat, but seven sailors died in the flooded compartment. She made it to port with assistance and will face many months of expensive repairs.

Several investigations are already underway. The one that will count most will be the one carried out under the rules of Navy’s Manual of the Judge Advocate General. This likely will be a one-officer JAG investigation, common in such incidents, though a Board of Inquiry should not be ruled out.

Final judgments on causes and blame will have to wait completion of the investigation and its endorsements up the chain of command. Even preliminary guesses at what really happened will have to wait until we know more about weather and visibility conditions, other traffic in the area, and the track geometry of the two ships — their courses, speeds, distances, and bearings to each other as the dance of death played out.

But there’s sufficient information to raise some early questions

— Was the bridge of the Crystal manned? Did they post required look outs? Many merchant ships, especially smaller ones like this, use auto-pilot and disregard the need for human look outs. Did that affect the collision

— The destroyer’s bridge team is required to keep a good lookout. It has radar on the bridge, backed up by the radar equipment and a watchstanding team in the Combat Information Center just behind the bridge. Were they even aware the giant container ship was bearing down on them?

— Many press reports say that the Crystal was overtaking the Fitzgerald, which would make the Crystal the vessel burdened with the obligation to maneuver to avoid the Fitzgerald. If that is true, why did she not? Did the Fitzgerald herself maneuver into danger?

— Regardless of who was burdened and who was privileged in the initial situation, the Crystal was required under the “Rules of the Road” to take last-minute action to avoid collision. Why didn’t she? So was the Fitzgerald. Again, why didn’t she?

— The destroyer’s commanding officer was asleep in his in-port cabin two decks below the bridge at the instant of collision. Why wasn’t he called to the bridge early on as the situation developed? Why was he not sleeping in his sea cabin mere steps from the bridge?

— Navy ships are required to immediately send FLASH-precedence message traffic reporting serious incidents to higher authority. Why did it take the destroyer nearly an hour to get the first report out?

— Had the Crystal kept on its way after the collision and kept her bow in the side of the destroyer, the flooding rate would have been greatly reduced. Why didn’t she?

— Crews of Navy warships are trained to avoid risk of collision under even the most adverse conditions. Officers of the Deck and the rest of the bridge watch team are qualified against rigid standards to stand a safe watch and keep their ship from danger. Executive officers have direct duties as training officer to ensure that watchstanders are qualified. Commanding officers are qualified, selected, and trained to exercise competent and total accountability for their command. Immediate superiors in command of Navy warships and operational commanders are required to ensure ships under their command can operate safely and correctly. Why did all these safeguards apparently fail?

— It is too soon to tell if there were significant mistakes made on the bridge of only one of the ships or on both.  The latter appears likely. Given the severity of the collision, and the distinct possibility of significant errors on the part of the Navy commanding officer, will he be court-martialed?  What sanctions will be applied to the civilian master if there are significant errors there? Who will have jurisdiction over the latter?

Capt. John Byron is qualified in surface warfare and in submarines. He served in five submarines, commanding the submarine Gudgeon. He is a plankowner of the cruiser Fox.

Photo credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images