The top three leaders aboard the USS Fitzgerald – which was badly damaged in a collision off the coast of Japan that killed seven sailors in June – will be removed from duty, a U.S. Navy admiral said Friday.
Navy Commander Bryce Benson, the commanding officer of USS Fitzgerald, along with the warship’s second in command and the command master chief will be “detached for cause” on Friday, Admiral William Moran, Vice Chief of Naval Operations, said at the Pentagon.
As the USS Fitzgerald, a guided-missile destroyer, proceeded south from her homeport of Yokosuka, Japan at 20 knots in the early morning hours of June 17, more ships appeared and the area became “congested,” Moran said.
Seven sailors drowned in the compartment known as “Berthing 2.” There were 28 other sailors who made it out of the compartment, which flooded quickly.
“Clearly at some point the bridge team lost situational awareness,” said Moran, describing the group of officers and sailors responsible for driving the warship through the water.
“It is somewhat amazing that we didn’t lose far more,” Moran said.
According to a report detailing the crew’s effort to keep the ship afloat, sailors escaped flooding spaces in chest and sometimes neck deep water seconds after hitting the Philippines-flagged cargo ship ACX Crystal on USS Fitzgerald’s starboard side.
The report described the last sailor to escape the flooded Berthing 2. “He was swimming towards the watertight scuttle when he was pulled from the water, red-faced and with bloodshot eyes. He reported that when taking his final breath before being saved, he was already submerged and breathed in water.”
“Several sailors -- both those in the compartment and out of the compartment -- clearly gave of themselves to make sure others got out," Moran said.
The Commanding Officer’s cabin was hit and it took about 25 minutes to recover him, Moran said.
“The rescue team tied themselves together with a belt in order to create a makeshift harness as they retrieved the (commanding officer), who was hanging from the side of the ship,” according to the report.
In addition to relieving the warship’s top leadership, “several junior officers were relieved of their duties due to poor seamanship and flawed teamwork as bridge and combat information center watch standers,” according to a statement from U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet Commander from Japan.
The statement added that the “collision was avoidable and both ships demonstrated poor seamanship,” noting that the “flawed watch stander teamwork and inadequate leadership” were factors in the collision which resulted in the death of seven Fitzgerald Sailors, multiple injuries and damage to both ships.
U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet Commander also acknowledged that “the entire Fitzgerald crew demonstrated real toughness that night.”
“Following the collision these Sailors responded with urgency, determination and creativity to save their ship. Their rigorous damage control efforts and dauntless fighting in the immediate wake of the accident prevented further loss of life,” the statement read.
The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John M. Richardson, is expected to release details of the full investigation in a matter of “weeks,” Moran said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.