Navy files criminal charges against commanders in deadly collisions

PHOTO: The damaged side of USS Fitzgerald at the U.S. Naval base in Yokosuka, southwest of Tokyo, June 18, 2017. PlayEugene Hoshiko/AP
WATCH Navy files criminal charges against commanders in deadly collisions

The U.S. Navy is filing negligent homicide charges against the former commanding officers of two destroyers involved in collisions last summer that killed 17 American sailors. The former commanding officers are among six Navy personnel aboard the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain the Navy says should face criminal charges and possible court martial for the collisions--which occurred off the coasts of Japan and Singapore.

"Courts-martial proceedings/Article 32 hearings are being convened to review evidence supporting possible criminal charges against Fitzgerald members," said Captain Greg Hicks, the Navy's Chief of Information, in a statement announcing the charges.

Article 32 hearings are preliminary court hearings that determine whether criminal charges should stand and be referred to a court martial.

"The members' ranks include one Commander (the Commanding Officer), two Lieutenants, and one Lieutenant Junior Grade. The charges include dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel, and negligent homicide," said Hicks.

Cmdr. Bryce Benson was commanding officer of the USS Fitzgerald on June 17 when it collided with a Philippine freighter off the coast of Japan, killing seven U.S. sailors. Benson, one of three sailors injured in the collision, was relieved of duty shortly afterwards.

"Additionally, for John S. McCain, one court- martial proceeding/Article 32 hearing is being convened to review evidence supporting possible criminal charges against one Commander (the Commanding Officer)," according to the statement. "The charges include dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel, and negligent homicide. Also, one charge of dereliction of duty was preferred and is pending referral to a forum for a Chief Petty Officer."

Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez was commander of the USS John S. McCain on August 21 when his ship collided with an oil tanker just outside the port of Singapore. Ten American sailors were killed and five others injured.

"Additional administrative actions are being conducted for members of both crews including non-judicial punishment for four Fitzgerald and four John S. McCain crewmembers. Information regarding further actions, if warranted, will be discussed at the appropriate time," said the statement.

"The collisions were avoidable," said Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, in the executive summary to the investigative report into both collisions. The report cited poor decisions and lax standards by the ships' crews as contributing to the deadly collisions.

When he released the report in early November, Richardson said he had appointed a four-star admiral to determine if disciplinary actions should be pursued for the officers involved in the incidents.

The Navy investigation found that the "watch teams" on the Fitzgerald's bridge failed to carry out basic Navy safety and navigation procedures and "failed to adhere to well-established protocols put in place to prevent collisions."

The Fitzgerald was traveling at a speed of 20 knots in the early morning hours of June 17 as it sailed through a busy shipping lane 50 miles south of Tokyo. Against his standing order the officer of the deck did not notify Benson when the destroyer came within three nautical miles of nearby ships. At one point the Fitzgerald crossed the bow of one of those ships at a distance of 650 yards.

The bridge team mistakenly calculated the passing distance of the freighter ACX Crystal and did not adjust the Fitzgerald's speed and course until it was too late.

The McCain collision was also deemed to have been avoidable and "resulted primarily from complacency, overconfidence and lack of procedural compliance," the investigation found.

"A major contributing factor to the collision was sub-standard level of knowledge regarding the operation of the ship control console," particularly regarding the ship's steering system prior to the collision," the report said.

As his ship transited through a busy shipping lane outside of Singapore, Sanchez --the ship's commanding officer-- ordered the ship's steering control be split between two helmsman. That decision, the investigation found, led to one of the helmsmen perceiving a loss of steering, causing the team on the bridge to lose situational awareness.

The problems on the bridge were compounded by an earlier decision Sanchez made to delay additional manning of key positions needed to transit busy waterways. The investigation determined the additional personnel could have corrected the mistakes made by the team on the bridge. determined.

The report said the bridge teams on both ships, in a failure of basic seamanship rules, did not sound five blasts from their horns to warn the commercial vessels in their paths about a possible collision, and neither of the bridge teams attempted to make radio contact with the commercial vessels to warn of a collision.

"If John S McCain had sounded at five short blasts or made Bridge-to-Bridge VHF hails or notifications in a timely manner, then it is possible that a collision might not have occurred," the report said.

Neither of the commercial ships made the same efforts either, the report said.

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