U.S. Warship Wrecked, Sailors Missing After One of the Worst Navy Collisions in Years
Container ship strikes USS 'Fitzgerald' off Japan
The collision of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Fitzgerald with the ACX Crystal, a Philippine-flagged container ship, appears to be the worst U.S. Navy ship accident in years.
Seven sailors are missing following the collision, which occurred in the morning darkness off Japan’s Izu peninsula around 2:20 a.m. on June 17. Two of Fitzgerald‘s crew berthings, the radio room and a machinery space flooded. The warship’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, and two other injured sailors were medevaced to a U.S. Navy hospital in Yokosuka and are in stable condition.
Imagery of the Fitzgerald shows severe damage to the destroyer’s starboard side, just below one of the octagonal SPY-1D phased array radars—which also appears damaged—that are critical to the ship’s anti-aircraft and missile defense system. Fitzgerald returned to Yokosuka under limited propulsion, the Navy stated.
The collision is a tragedy and the damage will put Fitzgerald out of action for a year or longer. It’s a further blow to the Navy’s 7th Fleet, as the incident now means one less Aegis guided-missile destroyer—a key asset keeping North Korea in check—in the Western Pacific.
The immediate focus will be on what happened aboard the Fitzgerald in the moments before the collision. A series of baffling mistakes would’ve had to occur in sequence to make such a disaster possible.
Darkness, radar clutter and weather can limit situational awareness. Sailors standing watch would’ve needed to spot and track the container ship and communicate its position to the officer of the deck.
The 730-foot-long, 29,000-ton Crystal appears to have made several sharp turns before the collision, according to publicly-available course data. The crash inflicted damage to the massive ship’s bow on her port side.
Crystal‘s abrupt course changes could have made it more difficult for Fitzgerald‘s sensors to keep her tracked. If so, that would’ve placed a greater burden on the watch crew—who would have already been hampered by poor visibility at around 2:00 in the morning.
Had the container ship approached from Fitzgerald‘s starboard side, international navigation rules would have privileged the lumbering Crystal over the nimble destroyer in terms of right of way. But it’s unclear what happened precisely. The area between the Izu peninsula and the Izu islands, where the collision occurred, is a narrow lane frequented by shipping traffic heading to and from the Port of Tokyo.
Collisions at sea involving military vessels are relatively uncommon—but not unheard of for the U.S. Navy, particularly in the Pacific with its busy shipping lanes and dangerous reefs.
In 2001, the Los Angeles-class submarine USS Greenville collided with and sank the Japanese fishery training ship Ehime Maru, killing nine crew members aboard the Japanese vessel. In 2005, the submarine USS San Francisco ran aground south of Guam, killing one sailor. Two years later, the submarine USS Newport News collided with a Japanese tanker.
In 2009, the Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Port Royal ran into a coral reef off the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Three years after that, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Porter collided with an oil tanker in the Persian Gulf. And in 2013, the minesweeper USS Guardian ran aground on a reef near the Philippines—the ship was a total loss.
In January 2017, the cruiser USS Antietam ran aground near Yokosuka.
A collision is a skipper’s worst nightmare, and Navy investigators will focus on Benson, who became Fitzgerald‘s commanding officer in May 2016. Benson’s last command before Fitzgerald was—in an ominous coincidence—aboard the minesweeper Guardian from 2008-2010.