Navy collisions rare but provide lessons in their wake – USA TODAY
Seven sailors were reported missing after a collision between a U.S. Navy destroyer and a merchant vessel off the coast of Japan.
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While investigators search for the cause of a fatal collision involving the USS Fitzgerald with a container ship near Japan, Navy experts said such accidents are “very rare” but could provide lessons for future sailors.
“This is big news because it happens so rarely,” said Bryan McGrath, a retired Navy commander whose last command was the USS Bulkeley, a destroyer similar to the Fitzgerald. “It happens rarely not because ship movements are so simple and straightforward — but because a high degree of professionalism is demanded from both military and commercial operators.”
The Fitzgerald collided about 2:30 a.m. Saturday with a Philippine-flagged container ship ACX Crystal that was more than three times larger. On Sunday, the Navy called off the search for seven sailors missing from the Fitzgerald after several bodies were recovered from flooded compartments on the ship. The Fitzgerald’s captain was seriously injured in the incident, and the ship nearly foundered before being towed back to port in Yokosuka, Japan.
Details remained scarce about what led to the collision in an area busy with sea traffic. Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the command of the Navy’s 7th Fleet, ordered an investigation.
“The damage was significant; this was not a small collision,” he said.
Collisions of any sort are rare, and even minor incidents damage the careers of naval officers. But Navy ships occasionally brush against buoys or become grounded as they navigate narrow shallows near ports.
A former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, described on David Letterman’s program in June 2011 how he spent 11 years recovering from an early career setback when his ship hit a buoy in the channel during his first command.
“It was a measure of getting up after those mistakes,” Mullen said.
Collisions between ships — particularly those involving casualties — are even rarer, according to experts.
“A U.S. ship is damaged in a collision to my knowledge, only every couple of years,” said McGrath, who is now managing director The FerryBridge Group, a national security consulting firm. “Loss of life, as we’ve had in this instance, is even rarer.”
Ships have nautical rules of the road established by the International Maritime Organization. Ships have technology such as radar and crew members to lookout for other vessels.
“It is far too early to speculate as to the cause of this particular accident. We just don’t have the evidence in yet,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain who was director of naval history. “In the past, these circumstances generally are attributed to some error in navigation on the part of one bridge crew or the other.”
McGrath warned that electronic systems don’t always conform to what crew members see, “especially at night.”
“What I can say is that because ships are large and somewhat lumbering, it takes time to turn or change speed,” McGrath said.
Among recent incidents:
• The USS Lake Champlain, a guided-missile cruiser nearly as long as two football fields, collided with a 70-foot fishing boat during a training exercise off South Korea in May. No injuries were reported.
• The Russian reconnaissance ship Liman sank in April after colliding in heavy fog with a Togo-flagged freighter in the Black Sea near Istanbul. All of the crew members were rescued.
• The USS Louisiana nuclear ballistic-missile submarine suffered a minor collision in August 2016 with the USNS Eagleview support ship off Washington state.
A touchstone accident was the collision of the USS Belknap guided-missile cruiser with the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier on Nov. 22, 1975. The collision off Sicily sparked a fire aboard the Belknap, where seven crewmen died and 47 were injured.
Hendrix, who was taught in the 1980s about the Belknap as a midshipman in the reserve officers’ training corps at Purdue University, said lessons will also be gleaned from the Fitzgerald incident.
“Whatever mistakes were made by either ship, those things will be collected, they will be synthesized, and then they will be taught to future generations of navigators and mariners so that we can learn from them and not repeat the mistakes of the past,” said Hendrix, who is now a senior fellow and a director of the defense strategies and assessments program at the Center for a New American Security.