Seven American sailors died after a loaded containership slammed into the 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, roughly 56 nm southwest of Honshu, Japan, in a busy shipping lane. The Philippines-flagged cargo ship ACX Crystal’s bow struck the Navy destroyer on its starboard side, roughly amidships.
Seawater flooded a mechanical space, radio room and two crew berths after the impact, which opened a gash below the waterline and collapsed a section of the destroyer’s superstructure. Cmdr. Bryce Benson, whose cabin caved in, was hospitalized with two other sailors. ACX Crystal sustained hull damage to its port bow.
Capt. Mark Woolley, a former Navy destroyer captain who is now chief of staff at SUNY Maritime, 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.”
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 separate probes.
ACX Crystal departed Nagoya on June 16 at about 1730 and steamed east toward Tokyo. The Navy ship appears to have been heading south when it crossed paths with the eastbound cargo ship at about 0130. U.S. officials said the accident happened at about 0220, and the Coast Guard declined to comment on the discrepancy.
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 in 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,” he said.
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.