WASHINGTON – The captain of a Navy warship that lost seven sailors in a collision with a commercial container ship in June will be relieved of command and nearly a dozen others face punishment, the Navy's second-ranking admiral said Thursday.
Adm. William Moran, the vice chief of naval operations, told reporters that the top three leaders aboard the USS Fitzgerald, which was badly damaged in the collision off the coast of Japan, will be removed from duty aboard the ship. They are the commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson; the executive officer, Cmrd. Sean Babbitt; and Master Chief Petty Officer Brice Baldwin, who as the ship's command master chief is its most senior enlisted sailor.
The actions are being taken by Rear Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander of the Navy's 7th Fleet, based at Yokosuka, Japan, because he lost confidence in the three, Moran said.
In addition, nearly a dozen face non-judicial punishment that has yet to be determined, Moran said, adding that details on those actions are to be announced Friday after they are completed.
Moran said the actions are to be taken shortly, although the Navy's investigation into how and why the USS Fitzgerald collided with the container ship in June has not yet been completed.
"Serious mistakes were made by members of the crew," Moran said, adding that he could not fully detail those mistakes because the investigation is ongoing. He said "the bridge team," or the sailors responsible for keeping watch on the ship's bridge to ensure it remains safe, had "lost situational awareness," which left them unable to respond quickly enough to avoid the disaster once the oncoming container ship was spotted.
Separately, the Navy released the results of a review of events that took place aboard the ship after the collision, focusing on the crew's efforts to control damage, save lives and keep the ship afloat.
The crash occurred in the pre-dawn hours of June 17 off the coast of Japan in an accident-prone area known for congestion. That is within Japanese territorial waters. The seas were relatively calm, and visibility was unrestricted. The bow of the container ship, the Philippine-flagged ACX Crystal, slammed into the Fitzgerald's right side above the waterline, quickly flooding several areas inside the ship, including a berthing, or sleeping, area.
Of the 35 sailors who were in Berthing 2 at the time, 28 escaped. Seven drowned.
The collision knocked out external communications and cut power in the forward portion of the ship.
The Navy review of what happened aboard the ship following the collision found that the seven deaths could not be blamed on misconduct. It commended the response by the ship's crew, singling out two sailors for taking extra steps to help other out of the flooded berthing space — actions that it said likely saved the lives of at least two of their shipmates.
"No damage control efforts, however, would have prevented Berthing 2 from flooding completely within the first two minutes following the collision, or the deadly circumstances in that situation," the review said.
The report said that although some in Berthing 2 heard a loud noise at the time of the collision or were thrown from their beds by the force of the impact, some did not realize what had happened and remained in bed. Some remained asleep.
"At least one sailor had to be pulled from his rack and into the water before he woke up," it said.