Navy to relieve USS Fitzgerald leadership for mistakes that led to fatal collision

Seven sailors lost their lives in June in the collision with a container ship.

ByABC News
August 18, 2017, 12:59 AM

— -- The U.S. Navy relieved the USS Fitzgerald's commanding officer, executive officer and senior enlisted sailor for mistakes that led to a fatal crash with a merchant ship on June 17.

Seven U.S. sailors lost their lives when the Navy destroyer collided with a Philippine-flagged container ship in the middle of the night off the coast of Japan. The accident was called "avoidable" and said both ships "demonstrated poor seamanship," according to a release by the Navy.

The Navy announced Thursday that the commander of the Navy's 7th Fleet had relieved Cmdr. Bryce Benson, Cmdr. Sean Babbitt, and Master Chief Petty Officer Brice Baldwin for loss of trust and confidence in their ability to lead in those positions.

They are among a dozen of the ship's crew who faced administrative action for their role in the collision. The investigation into what caused the crash continues, but it has so far determined that there was "plenty of evidence to determine that serious mistakes were made" by members of the crew, said Admiral William Moran, vice chief of staff of the Navy.

Because the investigation is ongoing, he could not say if the Fitzgerald was "solely responsible" for the collision with the ACX Crystal.

The Navy's 7th Fleet issued a statement late on Thursday after the command team was relieved further specifying each of the men's role in the crash. Benson was relieved "due to a loss of confidence in his ability to lead," according to the release. Babbitt and Baldwin "contributed to the lack of watch stander preparedness and readiness that was evident in the events leading up to the collision."

The Navy also said "several" junior officers were relieved of duties due to "poor seamanship and flawed teamwork as bridge and combat information center watch standers."

The Navy released a report detailing the harrowing moments immediately after the ship's collision.

It took 90 seconds for one of the Fitzgerald's sleeping quarters to completely flood, leaving the 35 sailors sleeping there little time to escape.

As the water quickly rose, two sailors who had been helping others up a ladder eventually had to climb out of the compartment, according to the report. They reached their hands back down through the hatch where they were able to pull out two more sailors.

Twenty-eight survived, while seven others drowned.

The captain’s quarters also took a direct hit, destroying the room and trapping the captain in debris. The ship's crew had to use sledgehammers, a kettle bell and their own bodies to force their way into his quarters, according to the report.

"A junior officer and two chief petty officers removed debris from in front of the door and crawled into the cabin," the Navy's report read. "The skin of the ship and outer bulkhead were gone and the night sky could be seen through the hanging wires and ripped steel. The rescue team tied themselves together with a belt in order to create a makeshift harness as they retrieved the [commanding officer], who was hanging from the side of the ship."