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USS Fitzgerald

[ 92 ] June 17, 2017 |

So this happened.

Seven sailors are missing and three more, including the commanding officer, were confirmed injured after the USS Fitzgerald collided with a merchant vessel early Saturday off the coast of Japan.

Cmdr. Bryce Benson, who took the helm of the Yokosuka-based destroyer last month, is in stable condition after being evacuated by helicopter to a naval hospital in Yokosuka, Navy officials said.

The other two injured sailors, who received lacerations and bruises, were flown to the same hospital, 7th Fleet announced on its Facebook page.

The collision happened about 2:30 a.m. Saturday about 56 nautical miles (roughly 64 miles) southwest of Yokosuka near the Izu Peninsula, a Navy statement said.

Very difficult at this point to say what happened; the MV was steering what looked like an erratic course, and it’s unclear what kind of information environment the bridge crew on USS Fitzgerald faced.

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  • This is quite strange, to say the least. The “information environment” on the bridge is the most sophisticated on all the seven seas, as I’m sure you know. Very odd also that it’s the CO who was the most seriously injured. That’s quite a coincidence.

    • There is always the temptation in such environments to look only at the screens and not out of the window. Cf. Air France 447.

      • The screens would certainly show the freighter,and there would be alarms screaming and red lights flashing as well.

      • Warren Terra

        Sure, but the screens are pretty good (and the windows aren’t, especially at 2:30 AM). I think it’s illegal to operate a much smaller boat without a radar in operation, and each of these things was well over a hundred meters long and made of steel, making them incredible radar reflectors, with (multiple) radar emitters at least a hundred feet over the water line. It would have been impossible for both ships not to see each other from dozens of miles away, and that’s even if they’d turned off their radar transponders. I’ll be interested to hear how the collision came to happen, because it really shouldn’t be possible.

        • cpinva

          saw this earlier, and yes, very odd. i’m going out on a short limb, and guessing Cmdr. Benson isn’t making Captain anytime soon. you crash a Navy ship, unless it’s wartime, and the Navy tends to frown on that. the review board for this should be really interesting.

          • bender

            A number of years ago, somebody ran a US naval vessel into one of the supports of the Bay Bridge. Minor damage to the bridge and the ship, no major injuries, it was dark and foggy and the currents in San Francisco Bay are tricky, but still. Your ship hits a large immovable object. That was the end of that CO’s career.

            • bs

              I think it was a cargo freighter, not a naval vessel (unless you’re talking longer ago than ~10 years.)

          • In fact he’s working on his resume. He won’t be in the navy much longer.

      • ArchTeryx

        Keep in mind, in airplanes, the crews are SPECIFICALLY trained to look only at the screens – that’s what instrument flying is all about, and ALL flights are instrument flights in commercial aviation. One of the first things they do when you’re in instrument training is put blinders on you so you can only see your instruments, not any of the windows.

        Ships are a different matter altogether, though as has been pointed out, visibility isn’t all that great if you’re in a lighted bridge at 2am. The instruments occasionally mislead, but they never lie.

    • Captain Oblivious

      (a) We don’t know if the CO was injured by the collision itself or in the follow-up. The damage was extensive and early reports indicate the ship was in danger of sinking. He may have gone to inspect the damage and supervise the rescue and salving operations. That would be a very dangerous environment to be climbing around in.

      (b) By can boat standards, the ACX Crystal is small (700 feet), although still bigger than the Fitx by a couple hundred feet. She’s also relatively new (2008). Given that she was built as a feeder rather than a long-hauler (she was on her way between Japanese ports), she’s probably equipped with pods rather than conventional steering to allow for self-docking. Between that and her size, she would be more maneuverable than your typical can boat.

      (c) The area where this occurred is a busy shipping lane. Ships pass close to each other routinely. My understanding is that they are under port control in this area, even though it’s still fairly far off the coast (56 miles from Tokyo, but more like 12 miles from the nearest coast line).

      (d) Amateur trackers have posted a number of tracks from vessel-tracking sites (virtually all blue-water MVs report GPS tracking data via satellite these days, because they can’t get insurance if they dno’t) that suggest the ACX Crystal veered off course at least once before the collision.

      (e) If (d) is true, then the ACX Crystal may have been having mechanical problems and the Fitz may have approached to assist. That’s purely speculiative, but it’s a plausible scenario.

      • “He may have gone to inspect the damage and supervise the rescue and salving operations. That would be a very dangerous environment to be climbing around in.”

        Right. Which is why he didn’t belong there. I can imagine him doing it, but it’s not his job.

        • cpinva

          good point. as the CO, no doubt he felt an obligation to his crew to oversee things, but his greater obligation is to the ship itself. he should have been on the bridge, letting his highly trained crew do what they’re highly trained to do.

          • Lurker

            You know, the CO might have a bit more realistic understamding of the actual nees for supervision of his subordinates, and in addition, the CO is almost the only free actor on a ship. Everyone else has a job to do. The bridge has prpbably a crew, including the officer of the watch, who know their jobs, and might be well trained to do it. After all, yhe situation on the sea might have been straightfoward enough for them to handle. It is not like the ship was on hostile seas, or under attack.

            I am not an American, but the officer ethos I have been trained for is that the commanding officer should actually take risks, and do, if possible, the eventual life-threatening tasks himself unless there is someone much better qualified around, although seeking death is not the objective. For example, the commanding officer should be the first to remove a gas mask after a chemical attack has been survived and the sensors show all clear. And the CO should be the first to stand up and start a charge against enemy positions. So, if a CO gets injured in damage control situation, he is doing his job: leading from the front at the most dangerous location.

          • slybrarian

            According to someone I know who served on a Burke, on his ship at least the CO’s cabin was pretty much right where the ship hit. Given the time of night he was probably asleep and injured during the impact.

            • Norrin Radd

              That’s exactly what the Times reported morning:

              “This was not a small collision,” Vice Adm. Joseph P. Aucoin, commander of the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, said at a news conference.

              “His cabin was destroyed. He’s lucky to be alive,” Admiral Aucoin said of Commander Benson.

              Commander Benson, 40, took the helm of the ship just a month ago.”

  • cleek

    the gales of November came early?

    • Thlayli

      +1 Gitchee-Gumee

    • Norrin Radd

      Love that song.

  • Whirrlaway

    According to the “rules of the road” I learned, the vessel coming from starboard has the right-of-way. … http://www.eudesign.com/mnems/searules.htm

    … is that an actual kink in the Fitzgerald’s hull?

    • delazeur

      Notably, that is *a* right-of-way rule but not *the* right-of-way rule. I was taught that military vessels always have the right-of-way, but I’m not sure if that only applies in internal/territorial waters.

      • keta

        Always giving way to military vessels is a new one to me. I’ve always understood them to be operating under the same collision regulations as all the other traffic at sea.

      • jmauro

        They have right of way over most vessels, like sail boats, but not right-of-way over larger ships like container freighters, except when in combat operations.

        • David Allan Poe

          In the Rules, a vessel under sail has right-of-way over a vessel under power, except in certain situations.

          There isn’t any distinction between military and civilian traffic; I assume that in a combat situation the operating rule would be “Stay out of the way of the boat with the guns and missiles that is threatening to blow you up,” but in the ordinary course of events an aircraft carrier and a yacht have the same official status under the rules.

          • bluejohnnyd

            Pace the rule that smaller boats always yield to larger craft.

          • Captain Oblivious

            Everyone with stripes on their jacket cuffs in these kinds of vessels know the rules of the road better than we do. They also know that running into other ships for no reason other than stubbornness is a career-ender, if not a prison sentence.

            This is not a right-of-way issue. Something else went terribly wrong.

            • David Allan Poe

              While this is true, it’s also true that very experienced people make very elementary mistakes all the time, for all sorts of reasons. Given the time, I’d expect that the officer in charge of both vessels at least in the early stages of the incident wasn’t the skipper or the first mate. By the time somebody woke up the skipper, it may have been too late.

              And there are plenty of reasons other than stubbornness to be getting t-boned by a container ship (or t-boning a destroyer), including but not limited to:

              – Even though the container ship has the right of way, I think I am fast enough to get in front of him and don’t want to alter my course or speed for some reason. This is absurdly common among people with fast boats.

              – A lot of people, from the spotters with binoculars to the radar operators fucked up and we didn’t see the other boat until it was too late

              – We didn’t correctly figure the speed and course of the other boat, mistakenly didn’t think we were in a crossing situation, and didn’t give ourselves enough sea room at the beginning to escape once it became obvious we were wrong

              – The other boat did something unexpected

              Given where the damage on each boat is, the destroyer is probably the give-way vessel. Something obviously went terribly wrong, and it is possible that, as you say above, there was a mechanical issue or something (although the extent of the damage to the destroyer suggests collision at speed), but all collisions at sea are at bottom a right of way issue, because somebody has to move out of the way.

              There’s a reason the rules test taken by merchant mariners requires 90% correct to pass, and is considered one of the hardest tests in the battery at every level.

    • Peterr

      Also playing a role are the laws of physics: a fully loaded container ship doesn’t turn on a dime.

      And yes, that’s an actual kink. Again, see “Physics, laws of.”

      From Reuters:

      At around 29,000 tons displacement, the ship dwarfs the 8,315-ton U.S. warship, and was carrying 1,080 containers from the port of Nagoya to Tokyo.

      I haven’t seen anything about the speed at which the collision happened, but a very large mass times even a minimal velocity creates a helluva lot of potential energy, and it expended itself on the hull of the Fitzgerald.

      • That’s right, as a practical matter the right of way goes to the least nimble vessel. If you’re driving a 24 foot Chris-craft you aren’t going to insist on your right of way from a supertanker.

        • Whirrlaway

          There again the DDG would be way more maneuverable. I should hope. Nobody’s under sail, nobody’s got a tow, nobody’s got a diver down

        • N__B

          the right of way goes to the least nimble vessel

          Snoopy once described this as “survival of the fattest.”

        • Davis X. Machina

          I crewed once for a drunken Hustler skipper who was famous for trying on the sail > power rule with various big metal things coming in and out of Quincy Fore River.

      • Kinetic, not potential, no? (Ignoring relativistic considerations.)

        • Peterr

          It is potential until it hits something. Then it becomes kinetic.

          • wjts

            That’s not how I remember high school physics!

            • Jordan

              I was always mildly suspicious of potential energy in high school. Seemed like a scam to make the books work.

              • twbb

                Same.

                • twbb

                  And the problem is more a pedagogical one than a physics one; its taught alongside forms of energy that aren’t bookkeeping.

                • Jordan

                  for me, it was a textbook problem (me and my few classmates didn’t really have a teacher, rather just someone who assigned readings/problem sets/tests and answered questions). And that (and a few other) questions just seemed dumb to ask so I didn’t).

                  But ya, that is definitely a pedagogical issue rather than a physics one.

              • Just_Dropping_By

                Pumped-storage hydroelectric facilities will make you a believer: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pumped-storage_hydroelectricity

                • Jordan

                  oh I’m a believer *now*. But the presentation of it in high school, such as it was, left some doubts.

              • jmauro

                That’s pretty much what it is. It’s to make sure the laws of thermodynamics aren’t violated.

            • Hondo

              Me neither. And I didn’t take high school physics.

          • Nick never Nick

            Nope — something moving has kinetic energy, it’s basically the definition of kinetic energy. Potential energy is energy that could occur if something happens (chemical potential energy is gasoline that’s not burning, potential kinetic energy is a boulder that’s not rolling).

            • Nope — something moving has kinetic energy, it’s basically the definition of kinetic energy.

              Which is why (pace Ken, immediately below) I suggested ignoring “relativistic considerations”, to avoid having to decide whether the iron ball Galileo has just dropped off the Tower of Pisa is “moving” or the Earth is (so who’s got potential now, Mr. Eppur C. Muove? huh??).

              ETA: If the ships had met head-on, there wouldn’t have been just a “kink”: we’d have seen Fitzgerald contraction.

          • njorl

            No.

        • Ken

          If relativistic considerations had been in play, both ships and a fair chunk of Japan would be gone.

          • delazeur

            0.0000000000000000001c is just as relativistic as 0.9c

    • David Allan Poe

      It’s odd that the damage to the container ship is on the port bow. Usually if you’re trying to last-second avoid a collision with a boat that should be giving way but isn’t you try to turn to port, to get behind the crossing vessel, in which case you’d expect them to hit on their starboard bow.

      The unofficial rule-of-the-road is that when one vessel is much larger, you stay the fuck away from the big boat. Cut speed, dramatic turns, whatever.

      They also should have been in radio contact with each other and probably for some reason were not.

      Getting t-boned on your starboard side in a crossing situation is almost always your fault. I’m guessing some combination of late-night not paying attention in the open sea on both boats, combined with the destroyer skipper acting like an idiot charter boat fisherman and deciding that since he’s so fast, he can get across the container ship before the ship hits him. It’s always a temptation if you have speed to burn.

      It might explain the damage to the port bow of the container ship- if that skipper realized that collision was going to happen anyway, it would be better to give a glancing blow off the port side than hit the destroyer on a direct course with the starboard bow, which would bring the full tonnage of the container ship to bear and cut the destroyer in half.

    • Warren Terra

      The same “rules of the road” for piloting pleasure craft should have taught you that a merchant ship in a designated shipping lane has right of way regardless. But as others have noted I don’t really think those “rules of the road” apply as easily here.

      In any case, both ships should have had bridge watches, had radar transponders that made it possible to radio each other by name, and had radar giving them hours of notice of the approaching vessel. They turn and stop slowly, but not that slowly.

      • David Allan Poe

        The Rules of the Road are actually an international set of rules that govern everything on the ocean, from a kayak to a container ship. They are considered binding and the first job of an investigator in an at-sea collision is to figure out what rules govern the situation and who didn’t follow them correctly.

        They definitely didn’t have hours to see each other. A container ship is moving around twenty or twenty-five knots, and the destroyer likely was moving about the same speed. Even assuming they had their radar set to around sixty miles or so, which is a big circle, that whole encounter could easily have taken place within a half hour or less. Things happen very quickly, and someone on each boat not noticing the other for whatever reason for five minutes can reduce the margin for error considerably. I’m wondering if there was no radio contact or whether there was confusion during the radio conversation.

        • bender

          I can imagine some language difficulties in the radio conversation. I assume it was conducted in English. Unlike the conversation between an airplane pilot and a flight controller, the conversation might not have been confined to formulaic phrases.

          The radio operator on the Crystal might have been a native speaker of Tagalog or Japanese or some other language. If the radio operator on the Fitzgerald had a regional accent that was unfamiliar to the operator on the Crystal, even simple information might have needed to be repeated several times in order to be understood. Time may have fun out.

          Pure speculation.

          • David Allan Poe

            Yep, it’s all speculation at this point, but the idea of a radio clusterfuck is a strong possibility.

            It’s worth noting that, even in the event that there were language issues hampering communication, it makes zero difference in responsibility – it is still the duty of the give-way vessel (whichever one it was) to do whatever they have to do, in a clear and obvious manner, to avoid the right-of-way vessel, and it is still the duty of the right-of-way vessel to continue at their course and speed unless they need to emergency maneuver to avoid or minimize a collision.

  • russiannavyblog

    I haven’t seen anyone mention this yet, but the Fitzgerald is one of two dozen or so Burke class destroyers equipped with Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense. Forward deployed to Japan, this makes her one of the first responders to the Korean peninsula in the event things go down the toilet there. Now the US has much less flexibility to respond to North Korean missile tests.

  • I’m sure the Secretary of the Navy is on top of this.

    Oh wait…

    .

    • keta

      At least the US ambassador to Japan can liaise…oh…uh…

      • Peterr

        That’s all right, because back in Foggy Bottom the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs is ready to . . .

        Oh, never mind.

      • twbb

        I’m pretty sure any acting ambassador will be better than anyone Trump would appoint.

      • Schadenboner

        Of all the mean petty shit that asshole did, recalling all ambassadors before the end of the school year has somehow always struck me as among the just nastiest.

        Christ, what an asshole.

  • koolhand21

    At that time of night, two berthing compartments flooded and 7 missing is something of a surprise. I don’t know staffing but the 2-4 shift would have a lot of people below decks.
    I haven’t tried to see how far at sea they were nor what the shipping lanes are like at that spot but the main radar could have been powered down. I stood radar watches long ago and when near a port or in shipping lanes, the most powerful radar was usually shut down because of proximity.
    Either way, that’s a courts-martial for the skipper and the end of his career. Not that I care about that, I really feel sad for the seamen who lost their lives in an accident. Just like about 30% of the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sad and tragic.

    • SV

      “At that time of night, two berthing compartments flooded and 7 missing is something of a surprise.”

      Why? Sorry, I feel like I’m totally missing something.

  • Just_Dropping_By

    This feels like another data point for the whole Seinfeld-ian, “Why do USN sailors wear camouflage when more USN sailors have died due to falling off ships in the last 30 years than have been killed by enemy action? Camouflage makes you harder to see. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to make the uniforms bright orange?”

    • Hondo

      That requires money that is better spent on white man’s welfare weapons programs for the well connected defense contractors and their hordes of engineers who need six-figure jobs and reliably vote republican.

    • Thlayli

      As I heard it explained once: the rationale for the dark-blue camo is to hide stains. Dirt, oil, battleship-gray paint.

      • Hondo

        Yeah, that’s so much more important than Crew Overboard procedures and safety measures to increase the probability of rescue. Spotting a person in the water in even relatively calm seas in daylight is difficult enough.
        As stupid as bureaucratic decisions can be, I have to be skeptical about that one. Who told you that?

        • Warren Terra

          If visibility and water rescue were the concerns then surely rather than changing the color of the shirt you’d add a strobe and a dye packet?

        • cpinva

          the reason the first stealth fighters were painted black, instead of the original sky blue (harder to see from below during daylight hours) is because the general in command of the first squadron of them didn’t want his pilots flying “sissy colored” planes. a more manly black (which is easily visible during daylight hours) made them feel better, while they were being shot down, i suppose.

    • koolhand21

      From all the man overboard drills we did, not sure it matters much. We put a dummy in the water made out of orange life vests and only found it about 25% of the time. Of course, it was single ship w/o helo aid but it’s hard to survive a sudden immersion esp if injured. Water temperatures matter a lot as well but I didn’t think those sailors went in the drink but were in flooded compartments.

      • SV

        But how often did you find the dummy that wasn’t safety orange?

        (P.S. I also assumed they were… still on the ship.)

        • SV

          Although apparently there’s a search on… would that be SOP even if the flooded compartments were inaccessible?

  • Hondo

    I think the insurance company is going to total that ship. It appears that the amount of structural damage may not be repairable.
    In any case, as has been said, the skipper is finished.

    • Lit3Bolt

      Hell, almost every officer on that ship has now had their career ruined.

      • Warren Terra

        That seems extreme – the skipper, sure, and everyone who was on watch. But I assume there will have been some who were off-duty at 2:30 AM, don’t have responsibility over the people who were on duty, and some who distinguished themselves with truly heroic medical and damage-control efforts.

        • Lurker

          You know, for organizational morale reasons, it is almost always necessary to find the good apples in every disaster. For example, when that pair of patrol boats got apprehe ded by Iranians, a number of superior officers got their careers cut, the commanding officer got a recommendation for administrative action, one NCO was court-martialed, but one petty officer third class was recommended for a decoration.

          So, it is quite likely that a couple of officers will be moved on-shore, and the officer of watch may get court-martialled, but I am quite sure they will also find a couple of heroes to decorate.

      • Probably the Captain, Officer of the Deck, and Navigation Officer at the very least.

        My son-in-law was USN and was actually at the helm of a ship (Frigate or Destroyer it think) when it
        ran over a sandbar.

  • Dilan Esper

    I’m waiting for Gordon Lightfoot to write a song about the wreck of the USS Fitzgerald.

    • bender

      Seems like a bad luck name for a ship.

      • Derelict

        Not nearly as bad as Vincennes. Just look at what’s happened to most of the USN ships that bore that name.

  • Proto-Morlock

    This actually sounds like a repeat of the example in Charles Perrow’s “Normal Accidents”, where two ships that have the whole ocean to navigate in and mutual communications nevertheless manage to steer into each other through small mis-corrections in course.

    • David Allan Poe

      It is amazing how quickly very small errors in a situation like this can rapidly become catastrophic, especially if both parties start trying to move around each other. My asshole always clenched a little in even the most routine crossing situations until the other boat was well past.

    • Derelict

      There’s a classic error set that involves trying to steer around another vessel using radar. In essence, an inexperienced crew tries to keep the other vessel abeam in an mistaken attempt to steer clear. In reality, they are setting a perfect constant-bearing collision course.

      • JR in WV

        There’s a long shaggy dog story/joke about radio conversation between two sites, one an aircraft carrier insisting that the other site must give way to his big important ship. At the end, the captain of the carrier practically orders the other party, who has been recommending that the carrier head to port, to take an action.

        The punch line is “We cant do that. We’re a lighthouse!” and aircraft carrier is headed for an island, fast.

        All that said, I was a member of the stern anchor gang on my USN ship, and the plan was for the bow to make fast to a mole (pier) while the tugs push the ship around to head back out to sea in the morning for a family day cruise.

        But it was quite windy, and once the ship got out about 45 degrees, the tugs couldn’t push any farther… in fact they began losing ground to the breeze. Our ship was tall, and made many thousands of square feet of sail. We dropped the stern anchor to keep from swinging back and crushing the tugs against the mole, and had to move all the mooring lines from port to starboard side.

        Then, while the anchor began slipping over the capstain, one or the other of the tugs, running harder than they had run in, well, ever, started a stack fire, burning accumulated unburnt fuel in that smokestack off hot. It was shooting flames like a jet engine on afterburner!! So we also had to break out firefighting hoses to play on the tugboat.

        While the bow end of the tender was sliding against the mole, scraping drains and such off the ship’s hull while crushing 18×18″ timbers into matchsticks.

        While the whole crew’s family stood there, in the gathering darkness, on the mole, which was not quite shaking as the timbers squealed when they were crushed. There were sailors reporting to their new station, too. Imagine the first impression they got!

        Captain Romatowski (IIRC the speling(sic)) was transferred to command of a naval hospital in Korea shortly after. No injuries, didn’t even drop the hook (anchor) at the time, I suspect saved by the wind dying off a bit after sunset.

        After I was a civilian again, I saw a tiny news story about my ship visiting San Juan, PR, and dropping a hook into the harbor there. So glad I missed that cluster-fq. Don’t know if it was the single stern hook or one of the front anchors, but at least they had divers and a crane big enough to recover the lost chain/anchor. Those puppies were BIG iron.

        • blackbox
        • Warren Terra

          There’s a long shaggy dog story/joke about radio conversation between two sites, one an aircraft carrier insisting that the other site must give way to his big important ship.

          I’m pretty sure this story predates the aircraft carrier – certainly I’ve heard it involving a battleship.

          It may even predate radio, and involve signal flags or light flashes.

  • Seanly13

    I am friends with a sailor on the Fitz (via Xbox Live and Facebook). His mom reported that he is safe. He operates something electronic on the boat so I would speculate that he was in his bunk during the accident.

  • RobNYNY1957

    We desperately need to get the stealth technology this “merchant vessel” was using. A high-tech state-of-the-art US Navy destroyer couldn’t detect it and take evasive action? We need to have more “merchant vessels.”

    • BiloSagdiyev

      Mr. President, we must not allow a merchant vessel gap!