Since the news first broke this weekend about the collision between the American Guided Missile Destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and a merchant freighter I’ve held off on writing anything about it. It’s a particularly sensitive subject for me and the most pressing, immediate concern was the fate of the seven missing American sailors. Up until this morning some of us who have been talking about it around here were still holding out hope. Because in situation like that there is always hope… until there isn’t. In the chaos of such a collision and the ensuing confusion, various situations could result in misinformation about the status of crew members. At any given time there are a certain number of sailors on leave and they might not have been recorded properly on the rosters. Sometimes sailors are briefly sent on TAD (temporary additional duty) assignments which could also result in confusion as to their whereabouts. Even if they were onboard, sailors could be trapped in an air pocket otherwise blocked by water and survive for a time. Someone could have even been thrown overboard (the crash took place in the middle of the night) and survived for some time in the water. (They teach us how to do that in boot camp.)
Sadly, none of those were the case and the bodies of all seven sailors have been recovered from the flooded compartments. (USN 7th Fleet)
A number of Sailors that were missing from the collision between USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) and a merchant ship have been found. As search and rescue crews gained access to the spaces that were damaged during the collision this morning, the missing Sailors were located in the flooded berthing compartments. They are currently being transferred to Naval Hospital Yokosuka where they will be identified.
First of all, I hope that you will all join us in prayer for the loss of these brave men and their families. While any loss is tragic, the way these guys went was probably particularly horrible, and I say that with some measure of personal experience to draw on. I’m seeing a lot of questions regarding this incident on social media and in the press, as well as some attempts to answer them. This includes an op-ed at CNN from Rear Admiral and former Defense Department spokesman John Kirby. Some of what he offers is particularly useful.
There is — at this writing — a lot we do not know about how the destroyer USS Fitzgerald came to collide with a heavily-laden freighter in the waters off Japan in the middle of the night.
We do not know whether the warship’s radars were operating sufficiently. We do not know what decisions the men and women who were standing watch aboard the destroyer made — or failed to make — that could have averted the danger. We do not know what actions, if any, were taken by the crew of the freighter to either cause or avoid this tragedy.
The admiral is correct that there is much we don’t know, but on some of the subjects he touches on there are things where we can make some pretty good guesses. Since I’m someone who went through a similar crash between a US Navy vessel and a civilian ship many years ago I might be able to offer a bit of perspective.
First, particularly since I’m seeing a lot of questions along the lines of, “how could this have happened” I’ll share the very brief thumbnail version of my own experience. I was stationed on an aircraft carrier in the summer of 1980 operating in the Arabian Sea and at a similarly dismal hour in the middle of the night. It was a God -forsaken, empty stretch of ocean which came to be known as Gonzo Station. We were doing a double UNREP maneuver (underway replenishment, with two ships literally strapped to our sides transferring fuel and supplies) when a blip showed up on our SPS-10 surface search radar. It was a smallish oiler out of Bangladesh heading in our general direction. Since ships in UNREP have the right of way we assumed she would change course and radioed to let her know. The oiler kept coming we got no response. We proceeded to begin emergency cutaway measures from our supply ships but the lines fouled on one side and we couldn’t peel the ship off, making it impossible to navigate. (I was on the night shift and still remember seeing the Chief Boatswains Mate literally hacking at the lines with a fire ax.) We eventually cut her loose, but by that time the oiler was close. Our signalmen were finally in contact with her using semaphore lights from atop their shack. The oiler had lost all electricity and communications, had limited steering ability and was just trying to make it to port. We went into a hard turn but you don’t spin a carrier on a dime. It was too late. The oiler punched into us leaving a hole in our hull the size of a station wagon, fortunately well above the water line. The oiler fared much worse.
So the point is, accidents can and still do happen sometimes. I’m not seeing any reports of the Fitzgerald being in UNREP at the time, but there are other possible explanations. As to whose fault it will wind up being, I appreciate what Admiral Kirby is saying, but the odds are heavily on one side. It’s fair to ask if somebody was asleep on watch or if the Fitz’s radar was functioning properly, but there’s no equivalency with a civilian cargo ship here. (By the way, I was a radar technician and worked in the op center fairly often at sea. This is not guesswork on my part.)
Even in a crowed lane such as the one the Fitz was in, we are always tracking the rest of the traffic. At the moment a new target (another ship) shows up on the surface search radar it’s given a designation and plotted in the ops center until it leaves the area. All target information is forwarded to the watch on the bridge. Even if the primary surface search radar went down, the Arleigh Burke class has a backup. In the crazy event that they lost both of them, there are other American units in the area and they would be sharing target information in an emergency. Civilian ships tend to have much smaller crews and a lot less nav equipment. If anyone was asleep at the switch or having technical issues it was probably the cargo ship.
It’s possible that either vessel could have undergone a massive steering failure at the worst possible time, but we’ll find that out when the investigation is complete. I suppose we can’t completely rule out an intentional ramming by the cargo ship, but it sounds unlikely in the extreme and I really don’t even want to think about that.
As to what happened afterward, let’s just say that you should pray that you are never onboard a naval vessel during a fire or flooding situation. All the sailors are trained in damage control (DC) and everyone has DC assignments during an emergency. A fire below decks can turn those cramped passageways into a living hell with zero visibility and your protective breathing apparatus is the only thing keeping you alive. Flooding can be even worse. And while at sea, there are no fire departments or first responders to call. The sailors are the fire department. If your ship catches fire you put it out yourself or you die. If the sea is rushing through a breach in the hull, you find a way to seal the watertight bulkheads or you either die or have a long swim ahead of you. The fact that the sailors are able to muster the will and strength to battle such situations is almost miraculous, but it’s what every sailor is trained to do. The Fitz was flooding, and badly from all the reports we’ve seen. Somebody had to go below to stop that disaster and some of the men sleeping in their quarters may never have even had a chance to make it out. It’s a situation most of us can only imagine and we really don’t want to.
Fault will no doubt be found in this collision and it may take a while to determine. In the meantime, we should mourn those who were lost even as we admire and salute the crew’s bravery and intestinal fortitude to make it through an event such as this and bring the ship in to harbor. Rest in peace, my fellow squids. Your service will not be forgotten.