Collision at Sea: USS Fitzgerald and ACX Crystal

July, 2017

Washington -- The USS Fitzgerald, a destroyer, collided with the cargo ship ACX Crystal in the middle of the night last month off the coast of Japan. Early accounts of the accident, in which seven U.S. Navy sailors died, expressed surprise that such a mishap could occur. Why didn't the Fitzgerald lookouts see the lights of other ship? Why didn't Fitzgerald radar track it? Why couldn't a nimble destroyer maneuver out of the way of a clumsy cargo ship? Why wasn't the captain on the bridge?

As a former Navy officer with experience in Japanese seas, I am not surprised at all. Sealanes can be crowded and ships must often avoid several other ships at the same time. Perhaps Fitzgerald was privileged against one but burdened in relation to another under the international rules of the road when Crystal made a sudden turn. Cargo ships are notorious for not following rules and even sailing by "iron mike" with no humans on the bridge. Perhaps the Fitzgerald starboard (the side of the collision) lookout was distracted or reporting other ships to the bridge and missed the moment Crystal's running lights changed color so as to indicate a different aspect of an otherwise invisible ship. The radar operators in CIC behind the Fitzgerald bridge may have been calculating courses and speeds that did not make sense to those on the bridge who had a first-hand view, as can happen. It may have been a wild mid-watch for the Officer of the Deck, who had standing night orders from the captain to wake him under certain conditions, but was hesitant to do so for some reason. Perhaps it all happened so fast, the OOD did not think he had time to awaken the captain and get him to the bridge, even if the captain's sea-cabin was only steps away.

In 1964, I was on a training cruise on the destroyer USS Waller in the Ligurian Sea, off the coast of Italy. It was nighttime. The OOD was Mr. Christian (yes, that was his name). He did not think much of the captain, who was a Captain Bligh type. Despite orders never to sit in the captain's bridge chair, Mr. Christian took pleasure in it on the mid-watch. We did not have any reason to call the captain to the bridge that night, but I suspect Mr. Christian would be reluctant to do so if there was any doubt about it.

In 1967, I was OOD myself aboard USS Rainier in the Tonkin Gulf. A U.S. aircraft carrier crossed paths with us twice. I knew what I was doing (or thought I did) and did not awaken the captain, who was new aboard and untested. In retrospect, perhaps I should have, because the carrier approached within the limits covered by the standing night orders. But at no time was there a situation of "constant bearing, decreasing range," the indication that a collision could happen and the standard to overcome any ambiguity in night orders.

I've known shipmates, qualified OODs, who were reluctant to call a captain to the bridge because they were on his wrong side for one reason or another and did not want yet another chewing out, deserved or not. By the way, the captain I did not call to the bridge was soon to wreck the ship's car late one night in port, while driving intoxicated back to the ship from the officer's club in Subic Bay, the Philippines.

A thorough investigation of the Fitzgerald collision will take place to try to determine the cause of it. It was tragic not only because seven lives were lost, but because Fitzgerald sailors had to make life and death decisions either to try to rescue their shipmates or to seal off hatches and doorways to keep the ship afloat, saving the lives of others. For my part, I'd like to know the relationship between the captain and his OOD that night. Navy tradition will hold the captain responsible whatever the circumstances (and I don't take issue with that tradition), but in so doing it may miss an opportunity to look into issues of character and leadership that may have been contributory.