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Japanese probe reveals more on how a NYK containership crushed a US destroyer a quarter of its size

The crew of the guided-missile destroyer that was struck by a 2,858-TEU ship four times its size in June off the coast of Japan fought to save the ship for an hour before the first calls went out for help, say Japanese investigators.

According to the US Naval Institute News, the collision of USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and the Philippine-flagged ACX Crystal knocked out the destroyer’s communications for an hour, while the box ship was unaware of what it hit until it doubled back and found the damaged warship, two sources familiar with the ongoing Japanese investigation told USNI News.

Investigators think the Crystal was transiting to Tokyo on autopilot with an inattentive or asleep crew when the box ship struck a glancing blow on the destroyer’s starboard side at 1:30am Saturday June 17.

When the crew of Crystal realised they had hit something, the ship made a U-turn in the shipping lane and went back to the site of the collision at 18 knots, and there discovered the Fitzgerald, and radioed a distress call to authorities at about 2:30am. US Navy officials initially said the collision occurred at around the time of the distress call at 2:30am.

Meanwhile, when Crystal’s port bow hit Fitzgerald, the warship was performing a normal transit off the coast of Japan. Above the waterline, the flared bow of Crystal caved in several spaces in the superstructure, including the stateroom of commanding officer Cmdr Bryce Benson.

The impact not only ripped a hole in the steel superstructure in the stateroom but also shifted the contents and shape of the steel so Cmdr Benson was “squeezed out the hull and was outside the skin of the ship”, a sailor familiar with the damage to the ship told USNI News.

Fitzgerald sailors had to bend back the door of the stateroom to pluck Cmdr Benson from the side of the ship and bring him inside. He and two other sailors were later removed by Japanese helicopter to a US naval hospital at Yokosuka on Tokyo Bay.

Pictures of Cmdr Benson’s stateroom from the door show the steel bent back to reveal open air, and a photo of the ship’s exterior pier-side shows almost the entire stateroom was crushed.

Meanwhile, below decks, the glancing blow of Crystal’s bulbous bow had ripped a 10-by-10-foot hole below the waterline, flooding a machinery space and the berths of half of the crew.

Later, US 7th Fleet commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin confirmed the spaces that were affected by the collision. “Three compartments were severely damaged,” Adm Aucoin said. “The machinery room and two berthing areas – berthing areas for 116 of the crew.”

The seven sailors who died aboard were sealed in the berthing area behind a watertight door as the ship’s company fought to keep the ship afloat, according to a description of events the navy told the family of Fire Controlman 1st Class Gary Leo Rehm, according to The Associated Press.

It’s yet unclear if the ship’s watch had time to sound the collision alarm or call general quarters before Crystal hit the destroyer.

In addition to the damage to the spaces, the collision knocked out Fitzgerald’s communications for the better part of an hour. At about the same time the crew was able to reactivate their backup Iridium satellite communications to radio for help, the Crystal arrived on the scene and called in its own distress call, the sailor told USNI News.

US Navy investigators were tight-lipped about details of the investigation, even inside the service. However, information USNI News learned from the Japan Coast Guard investigation indicates Fitzgerald was operating normally when the collision occurred, raising questions on why Cmdr Benson wasn’t on the bridge when a contact was so close to the destroyer.

The next week, US 7th Fleet began a flag officer-led Judge Advocate General Manual (JAGMAN) investigation to determine the facts of the collision, as well as a separate US Navy safety investigation. The US Coast Guard will take lead in a maritime casualty investigation.

As for the ship, five days after collision active damage control efforts are ongoing to prevent further damage to the hull. The force of the Crystal’s impact combined with the flood not only dented but twisted the ship’s hull. Crewmen were continuing to pump water in and out of the ship to keep Fitzgerald stable.

Naval Sea Systems Command then assessed if the ship can be repaired in Japan or would have to be transported to the US for repairs. The navy has since advertised for a Float On/Float Off (FLO/FLO) vessel to move the Fitzgerald to an unnamed US Gulf or US east coast port.

According to the Federal Business Opportunities solicitation, the navy is looking for “one US or foreign flag vessel “capable of transporting an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer”.

The cost to repair the Fitzgerald could easily exceed US$500 million, much of which will be needed to fix the extensive damage of the ship’s electronic systems, USNI (US Naval Institute) News said.

While investigation and repairs are ongoing, the ship’s crew has been given time away from the ship in an attempt to recover from the collision. The burden of ships’ watches were then shared by other crews on the Yokosuka waterfront, Navy officials told USNI News.

Both Chief of Naval Operations Adm John Richardson and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Steve Giordano both visited Yokosuka to speak with Fitzgerald sailors and their families.

Comments emailed to USNI News follow:

From retired machinist’s mate Ken Badoian: “The Fitzgerald survived and the question is why? 1) Great damage control, 2) Training, not giving up, 3) Leadership up and down the chain, 4) Robust design of ship, and MOST IMPORTANT, 5) US NAVY pride, save the ship and save your shipmates. Again well done shipmates.

“It appears that the Fitzgerald was not struck directly (ie at a 90 degree angle). Had that been the case, she would almost certainly have sunk regardless of any of these other factors.”

From Topnife: “The Fitz was the burdened vessel. It was obliged to keep out of the other ship’s way. How did an Aegis warship manoeuvre in front of another vessel, against all the rules of the road, with all her radars blazing and a CIC calculating closest point of approach every few seconds.

“The Fitz’s CO [commanding officer] was asleep in his stateroom, right behind the bridge, when the collision occurred! Why had he not been called to the bridge?

“Being run down by a 40,000-ton ship should not have been a total surprise to the OOD [officer of the deck] and bridge watch, or the CIC (combat information centre) of an Aegis ship either. No way that someone would not notice a huge ship bearing down on them, even if only for 30 seconds or less, unless someone was asleep on watch.

“It’s astonishing that all communications assets would be concentrated in just one area of the ship, such that the ship would have been rendered completely silent by a single ‘hit’.

“That ship looks ‘bent’. The damage extended virtually to the keel, and a 40,000-ton ship rode up over it and bore down. Have a look at the pix: the line of the hull is visibly bent. Scratch one DDG [guided missile destroyer (sic)].

From Johnny G: “I quite agree. Aegis radar touts 360 degree coverage. During normal Ops ‘situational awareness’ should not be a problem underway. During ANY closing or confrontational situation, the CO [commanding officer] must be informed as per SOP [standard operating procedure]. So, what happened?? The other ship had it’s own points of interest in that it’s bridge probably was not manned or had incompetent personnel on watch.

From Kapena16: “You’re a fool to make such a comment with no grounds or evidence to know this was the case. Cultivating the idea that civilian ships run around in a high density ship traffic area off the coast of Japan at night like a bunch of mindless robots all by themselves is utter BS and you should know better than to make such a claim. I don’t care how many years in the navy you had, even if on the bridge, even if you were qualified OOD [officer of the deck]. To think this was the case is utter nonsense and you owe a lot more respect to civilian licensed watch standing officers everywhere. News reports today confirm that captain of the cargo ship says they were attempting to signal and warn the navy ship off. The navy ship is at fault. Deal with that reality.”

Mongo: “Conventional wisdom on my navy ship was that commercial ship pilothouses were usually unmanned late at night, and it was fun to watch two radar pips merge into one, although we never heard any distress calls, so they obviously missed each other in the end.”

Next man: “In some 13 years sailing (engineer), first commercially, then military, I’ve never seen a bridge unmanned underway on a merchant ship. This with the typical two man watch (mate and AB [able bodied seaman]).”

Denny in Dayton: “The analysis by some of the Crystals’s AIS [automated information systems] is why they say the bridge was empty or someone was asleep. The AIS shows at what would be the time collision the Crystal briefly slowed, veered to starboard, then back to port then accelerated and resumed base course. That would have been it striking the Fitzgerald, bouncing off or breaking free. The key is the Crystal continued for over 15 minutes on that base course after the collision before presumably someone got up and started trying to figure out what happened.

“If true that’s a serious violation. But that said, the DDG had an obligation to avoid that accident and should have been able to. It’s a cow running into a deer – shouldn’t happen.”

From USS Fallujah: “I’m finding it difficult to get my head around how the bridge watch of Fitzgerald could let a ship the size of the Crystal slip their minds, especially when it got within a couple hundred yards – still enough time to sound an alarm. That is, after all, the primary purpose of the bridge watch.”

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