WASHINGTON/TOKYO (Reuters) – The U.S. Navy has removed the two senior officers and the senior enlisted sailor on a U.S. warship that almost sank off the coast of Japan in June after it was struck by a Philippine container ship, the Navy said on Friday.
Multiple investigations have yet to apportion blame for the accident that killed seven U.S. sailors aboard the guided missile destroyer the USS Fitzgerald.
However, the punishments are the first public admission by the U.S. Navy that mistakes by the crew contributed to the deadliest incident on a U.S. warship since Islamist extremists bombed the USS Cole in Yemen’s Aden harbor in 2000.
“The collision was avoidable and both ships demonstrated poor seamanship. Within Fitzgerald, flawed watch stander teamwork and inadequate leadership contributed to the collision,” the U.S. Seventh Fleet said in a media release.
In the first detailed account from one of those directly involved in the collision in the early hours of June 17, the captain of the cargo ship the ACX Crystal said in a report seen by Reuters his crew signaled the Fitzgerald with flashing lights around 10 minutes before the collision. The Fitzgerald did not respond or alter course, it said..
The commercial vessel had the right-of-way under maritime rules and the Fitzgerald, which was hit on the starboard side, was likely at fault.
Several U.S. and Japanese investigations are still under way into how the Fitzgerald and the much larger ACX Crystal collided in clear weather south of Tokyo Bay.
One pertinent question, said two naval officers who spoke on condition of anonymity, is what was happening at the time in the Fitzgerald’s Combat Information Center, where crew members monitor radar that should have detected the approach of a 30,000-ton cargo vessel.
Commander Bryce Benson was relieved “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to lead”, the Seventh Fleet said.
Commander Sean Babbitt and Master Chief Petty Officer Brice Baldwin “contributed to the lack of watch stander preparedness and readiness that was evident in the events leading up to the collision”, it said.
Several other junior officers have also been relieved, with administrative action taken against other members of the ship’s watch teams.