USS Fitzgerald Crash: No Physical Lookouts on Right Side of Ship Where Collision Happened

By Susan Jones | November 1, 2017 | 11:12am EDT
The USS John S McCain limps to port with a gaping hole where it collided with an oil tanker on August 21 in the congested Straits of Singapore. (Photo: Screen grab from television footage)

( - "The sky was dark, the moon was relatively bright" on the night of June 17, when the USS Fitzgerald, a Navy destroyer, collided with a Phillipines-flagged container ship in the waters off Japan.

That's according to the U.S. Navy, which on Tuesday released its report on both the Fitzgerald and the USS McCain collisions at sea.

Seven sailors died on the Fitzgerald, and collision of the USS McCain with a Libyan-flagged oil tanker two months later killed ten more sailors.

Both crashes were avoidable, the Navy concluded, and stemmed from failure to follow international nautical rules as well as various knowledge, training, and leadership deficiencies.

One glaring omission on the Fitzgerald:

“Watchstanders performing physical lookout duties did so only on Fitzgerald’s left (port) side, not on the right (starboard) side where the three ships were present with risk of collision.”

The container ship slammed into the Fitzgerald’s starboard side.

In general, the Navy noted that the commanding officer has  “absolute” responsibility for his or her ship. “Many of the decisions made that led to this incident were the result of poor judgment and decision making of the Commanding Officer,” the report said, adding that “no single person bears full responsibility for this incident.”

The report said Fitzgerald officers “possessed an unsatisfactory level of knowledge of the International Rules of the Nautical Road,” and “watch team members were not familiar with basic radar fundamentals, impeding effective use.”


-- Fitzgerald was not operated at a safe speed appropriate to the number of other ships in the immediate vicinity.

-- Fitzgerald failed to maneuver early as required with risk of collision present.

-- Fitzgerald failed to notify other ships of danger and to take proper action in extremis.

-- Watch team members responsible for radar operations failed to

properly tune and adjust radars to maintain an accurate picture of other ships in the area.

-- Watchstanders performing physical lookout duties did so only on

Fitzgerald’s left (port) side, not on the right (starboard) side where the three ships were present with risk of collision.

-- Key supervisors were unaware of existing traffic separation schemes and the expected flow of traffic.

-- Supervisors did not utilize the Automated Identification System, which provides real time updates of commercial ship positions through use of the Global Positioning System.

The report also found problems with “leadership and culture,” including ineffective communication and information-sharing between the bridge team and Combat Information Center team.

(The Combat Information Center is where equipment and personnel combine to produce the most accurate picture of the operating environment.)

Among other things, the Officer of the Deck, responsible for the safe navigation of the Fitzgerald, did not call the Commanding Officer on multiple occasions when required by Navy procedures.

In several instances, individual members of the watch teams identified incorrect information or mistakes by others, yet failed to proactively and forcefully take corrective action, or otherwise highlight or communicate their individual concerns.

The report also faulted the command leadership for allowing the crew to become fatigued.

USS John S McCain

The USS John McCain’s collision with and oil and chemical tanker in the Straits of Singapore on August 21 is blamed on three things:

-- Loss of situational awareness in response to mistakes in the operation of the steering and propulsion system;

-- Failure to follow the International Nautical Rules of the Road, a system of rules to govern the maneuvering of vessels when risk of collision is present.

-- Watchstanders operating the ship’s steering and propulsion systems had insufficient proficiency and knowledge of the systems.

Among other findings, the report noted that if the USS John S McCain “had sounded five short blasts” of its horn or made bridge-to-bridge contact with the tanker in a timely manner, a collision might not have occurred.

Also, “principal watchstanders, including the Officer of the Deck, in charge of the safety of the ship, and the Conning Officer on watch at the time of the collision did not attend the Navigation Brief the afternoon prior. The brief is designed to provide maximum awareness of the risks involved in a congested area that required a higher state of readiness.

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