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Captain in Navy warship crash relieved of duty


WASHINGTON – The two top officers aboard a destroyer during a deadly collision off the coast of Japan in June were relieved of their duties on Friday, the Navy’s Seventh Fleet said. A number of other sailors were punished for their roles in the crash.

The announcement followed the release of a harrowing preliminary report on the collision between the destroyer Fitzgerald and a freighter that killed seven people aboard the American ship. It was one of the Navy’s deadliest accidents in years.

The ship’s captain, Cmdr. Bryce Benson; his second-in-command; and the senior enlisted sailor were relieved of their duties by the head of the Seventh Fleet in Japan, Vice Adm. Joseph P. Aucoin. A statement from the fleet said “inadequate leadership” had contributed to the collision.

The statement said a number of other sailors would face disciplinary action. A senior Navy officer said Thursday that about a dozen sailors in total would be punished, including all those on watch the night of June 17.

The preliminary report described in detail the terrible moments after the collision and the rescue efforts aboard the ship.

Dozens of sailors who were rocked from their slumber, the report said, raced in the dark to escape from their flooding quarters. Within 90 seconds, seawater rushing through a gaping hole in the starboard hull was at first waist-deep, then neck-high as sailors pushed aside mattresses, wall lockers and other floating debris to clamber up a ladder to safety. The last sailor pulled from the chaos was underwater when his shipmates yanked him up.

The freighter crashed directly into Commander Benson’s stateroom, ripping open a huge hole and trapping him inside.

It took five sailors, using a sledgehammer and kettlebell, 25 minutes to break down the door to his cabin to rescue the captain, who was seriously injured and hanging from the side of the ship.

In summing up the failures of the captain and his crew, the vice chief of naval operations, Adm. Bill Moran, said the report made clear that “serious mistakes were made by members of the crew.”

As the shipping lanes got more crowded that night, Admiral Moran said the sailors on watch “lost situational awareness,” and by the time they realized their errors, it was too late to avoid a collision with the much larger freighter.

What the report released on Thursday did not answer, and what is still under a separate ongoing investigation, is how the collision could have happened. Were lookouts on watch scanning the seas for other ships and, if so, why did they not see the 728-foot freighter, the ACX Crystal, stacked with more than 1,000 containers, bearing on the destroyer?

How did radar officers on the bridge and in the combat information center below fail to detect the freighter closing in? And why was Commander Benson not awakened and summoned to the bridge, as standard protocol requires, to ensure safe passage?

Admiral Moran said it could be weeks before the investigation is completed into the causes and culpability for the accident.