Sailors Missing, Heavy Damage After the Second U.S. Destroyer Collision in Two Months
The crew of USS 'John S. McCain' battled flooding after tanker impact
Ten U.S. Navy sailors are missing and five were injured after the Liberian-flagged tanker ship Alnic MC collided with the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer John S. McCain off the Malaysian coast before sunrise on Aug. 21, 2017.
The damage from the 600-foot-long, 30,000-ton tanker vessel’s impact on John S. McCain tore open a hole on the destroyer’s port side aft near the waterline and below her Harpoon anti-ship missile launchers.
Destroyers are built in compartments which helps to contain flooding, but this is severe damage, and the crew would have raced to prevent water from filling into further spaces opened to the elements by the crushing impact of the tanker.
“Significant damage to the hull resulted in flooding to nearby compartments, including crew berthing, machinery, and communications rooms,” the U.S. Navy stated. “Damage control efforts by the crew halted further flooding.”
— Chief of Navy – PTL (@mykamarul) August 21, 2017
Following the collision, John S. McCain sailed under own power to Changi Naval Base in Singapore, where she was headed for a port visit.
Helicopters from the amphibious assault ship USS America responded as did Singaporean helicopters and the patrol ships RSS Gallant and Resilience, the frigate RSS Intrepid and the Police Coast Guard vessel Basking Shark. Malaysian Handalan-class missile boats also responded.
The damage appears severe enough to keep John S. McCain out of use for an extended period — a shocking blow to the second destroyer equipped with ballistic missile defenses in the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet in less than two months, and at a time of heightened tensions with North Korea.
On June 27 near Japan, a container ship — with a similar displacement to the Alnic MC — slammed into the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Fitzgerald at night, killing seven Navy sailors. The Navy relieved the commander and two senior officers after the incident, and credited sailors with working heroically to save the stricken ship, their fellow sailors and their injured captain.
In May 2017, the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain struck a South Korean fishing vessel but there was no damage to either vessel. In January 2017, another Ticonderoga, the USS Antietam ran aground in Tokyo Bay. In August 2016, the ballistic missile submarine USS Louisiana collided with the support ship USNS Eagleview off Washington state.
Injured sailors from USS ‘John S. McCain’ land in Singapore on Aug. 21, 2017 after a collision with a tanker ship. Singapore Ministry of Defense photo
This is a straightforward and self-evident fact — every minute at sea is dangerous, and threats can appear suddenly and unexpectedly.
Weather, poor visibility, the momentum of heavy vessels and human miscalculation of others’ intentions or simple inattentiveness can conspire to menace well-trained crews. A container ship miles away can close within a matter of minutes — and can travel that distance even after the crew cuts the engines. Radars are not perfect, requiring the constant presence of lookouts.
The waters near Singapore are the busiest in the world with hundreds of heavy container and tanker vessels passing nearby every day, a number which is increasing sharply year-over-year. Concurrently, the U.S. Navy is keeping up a busy operational tempo in the Pacific, which cuts into training time while the sailing branch faces a shortage of warships and personnel.
We don’t know what happened in the minutes before Alnic MC collided with John S. McCain. Nonetheless, a severe collision is typically career ending for a commanding officer, and a collision of such a magnitude is a disaster and tragedy. Two in such a short period of time also raises questions as to whether the 7th Fleet has a systemic problem striking at the core of its culture and procedures — a problem which is killing sailors and endangering its ships.