Last Weekend the USS Fitzgerald collided with the Merchant Vessel (MV) ACX Crystal some 56 nautical miles south-west of the Japanese port city of Yokosuka.
The USS Fitzgerald is a 154-meter long Arleigh Burke-Class guided missile destroyer, designed for multiple roles. She is capable of performing anti-aircraft warfare (AAW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-surface warfare (ASuW) and strategic land strikes with Tomahawk missiles.
MV ACX Crystal, is a 220-metre container ship from the Philippines and was travelling between the Japanese cities of Nagoya and Tokyo.
It is unclear where the USS Fitzgerald was heading at the time.
Yokosuka is home to the US 7th Fleet that comprises up to 80 submarines and ships, including the USS Fitzgerald.
Marine traffic records suggest the ACX Crystal made a sudden U-turn roughly 25 minutes before the collision with the USS Fitzgerald. It is not clear why it changed course.
Marine traffic records also suggest it was travelling at 14.6 knots at the time of the collision.
Similar records for the USS Fitzgerald are not publicly available.
Little is actually understood about the circumstances regarding the collision, but in situations like this the fault never lies entirely with one party. The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea provides instructions for action required by both parties in the event that a collision is likely.
Normally if there is confusion, and an inexperienced Officer of the Watch (OOW) at the helm, intentions may not be understood until it is too late and a collision is imminent. And although ships have to display mast and side lights at night it is not always immediately obvious which perspective of the ship you are looking at, particularly if there are any back lights from other ships.
Warships differ from Merchant Vessels in that they are carefully designed into compartments, allowing certain parts of the ship to be sealed off in the event of a collision or should they come under attack. This prevents flooding of the entire ship should the hull be breached and then allows the crew to conduct damage control and where possible carry out repairs before pumping out excess water.
This was successfully carried out by the Royal Navy in 2002 when HMS Nottingham ran aground on a submerged rock off the coast of Australia due to a navigational error. A hole 49m in length was torn down her side and flooded five of her compartments. However due to the hard work and persistence of the crew she managed to stay afloat.
David Dykhoff, a retired US Navy captain, told Good Morning America that: ‘The mentality is that you’re going to fight any catastrophes, any casualties, where they occur and preserve the rest of the ship.
‘And I guarantee that anybody would do everything they could.’
Unfortunately amid the chaos it transpired that 7 of the crew were unaccounted for, US and Japanese crafts scoured the spot where the collision happened in case any members of the crew were knocked over-board. But it was feared that they may have been sleeping in one of the compartments that began to flood.
This was confirmed when US Navy salvage divers found all 7 of the bodies on Sunday after gaining to access to damaged parts of the ship.
Stanley Rehm, the uncle of Fire Controlman 1st Class Gary Leo Rehm Jr – claims his nephew had to be sacrificed to save the rest of the crew.
“His dad told me that he saved 20,” Stanley said. “He went back down to where the other ones were at to save them.”
“The ship was flooding so fast they had to close the hatch to save the ship,” Stanley said.
“They had to sacrifice the few to save the many. Guess he died a hero.”
The USS Fitzgerald’s captain, Bryce Benson, was asleep when the collision occurred at 1:30am, but survived the horrific incident. He was airlifted to hospital after the accident, and was reportedly in stable condition on Saturday. In total three sailors were injured; all have since been released from a Navy hospital.
In 2012 the USS Porter collided with the MV Otowasan near the Strait of Hormuz in a situation involving several vessels at night. Following the collision an investigation was launched, where the ships course and speed data provided from the Automatic Identification System (AIS – a navigational tool used by ships) was analysed along with the voice recorder located in the bridge (ship’s controls). It found that a complicated shipping situation had flustered the inexperienced OOW who was belittled by the Captain and made a series of bad decisions. The CO took over control but wasn’t fully aware of all ships in the area and although he missed the initial collision, he was then unable to avoid the new threat faced by the MV Otowasan and was ‘T-boned’ on her starboard side by a vessel with a displacement 40 times larger than her own; sustaining severe damage.
There is nothing to suggest this collision is in anyway similar to the USS Porter incident but parallel investigations will now be carried out by civilian and military authorities to establish how this collision happened.
Lt. Scott Carr, a US Coast Guard spokesman, said he could not disclose details of the inquiry, but he said that investigators would typically interview crew members and examine electronic data from the ships involved.
Questions also remain about why – as shown in multiple GPS trackers – the cargo ship sailed on for seven miles and thirty minutes before turning around to help the stricken Navy vessel.
The Crystal also didn’t notify officials about the collision until 55 minutes after it occurred, at around 2:25am.
Having no-one at the helm of the cargo ship would explain why it took so long for the Crystal to react.
It’s also possible that because the 30,000-ton cargo ship dramatically outweighed the 8,000-ton destroyer, it shoved the boat out of the way without anyone aboard realizing.
At a press conference in Japan on sunday, U.S. 7th Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin spoke of his pride of the crew: “The crew’s response was swift and effective, and I want to point out – as we stand by the ship – how proud I am of them.
“Heroic efforts prevented the flooding from catastrophically spreading which could have caused the ship to founder or sink. It could have been much worse.”
As you are aware, we have found the remains of a number of our missing shipmates. Our deepest sympathies are with the families of these Sailors.”
“this loss is something we all do feel”