Basic Errors Caused ‘Avoidable’ Accidents That Killed 17 US Sailors, New Navy Report Reveals

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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The tragic Navy collisions in Asia that claimed the lives of 17 American sailors were “avoidable,” Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, concludes in a new report.

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with the merchant vessel ACX Crystal in June, killing seven American service members. Two months later, another destroyer — the USS John S. McCain — was involved in a collision with the oil tanker MC Alnic, an incident that resulted in the deaths of 10 U.S. sailors.

The Navy report, released Wednesday, had the following to say about the cause of the USS Fitzerald incident:

“The collision between Fitzgerald and Crystal was avoidable and resulted from an accumulation of smaller errors over time, ultimately resulting in a lack of adherence to sound navigational practices. Specifically, Fitzgerald’s watch teams disregarded established norms of basic contact management and, more importantly, leadership failed to adhere to well-established protocols put in place to prevent collisions. In addition, the ship’s triad (senior leadership) was absent during an evolution where their experience, guidance and example would have greatly benefited the ship.”

The USS Fitzgerald, while “obligated” to take evasive maneuvers did not take action to avoid the cargo ship “until approximately one minute prior to the collision,” the report revealed.

The USS John S. McCain incident was attributed to similar mistakes made by the crew, specifically a lack of knowledge concerning the ship’s operational systems and failures on the part of the commanding officers.

“The collision between John S. McCain and Alnic MC was also avoidable and resulted primarily from complacency, over-confidence and lack of procedural compliance. A major contributing factor to the collision was sub-standard level of knowledge regarding the operation of the ship control console. In particular, McCain’s commanding officer disregarded recommendations from his executive officer, navigator and senior watch officer to set sea and anchor watch teams in a timely fashion to ensure the safe and effective operation of the ship. With regard to procedures, no one on the Bridge watch team, to include the commanding officer and executive officer, were properly trained on how to correctly operate the ship control console during a steering casualty.”

In the wake of these devastating accidents, the Navy launched a full investigation and relieved multiple officers of their commands.

Former U.S. Seventh Fleet commander Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin was relieved after the USS John S. McCain was hit.

The command triad for the USS Fitzgerald — commanding officer Cmdr. Bryce Benson, executive officer Cmdr. Sean Babbitt, and Command Master Chief Brice Baldwin were recently sacked. Rear Adm. Charles Williams, commander of Combined Task Force 70, and Capt. Jeffery Bennett, commodore of Destroyer Squadron 15 were also removed from their commands during the ongoing Navy investigation.

Vice Adm. Phil Sawyer, Commander of the Seventh Fleet, relieved the commanding officer, Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez, and executive officer, Cmdr. Jessie L. Sanchez, of the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain recently due to a “lack of confidence” in their leadership capabilities, according to a statement from the U.S. Seventh Fleet Public Affairs office.

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