The commanding officer, executive officer and senior non-commissioned officer of the USS Fitzgerald have been removed from their duties for cause amid the fallout surrounding the deadly collision between the USS Fitzgerald and a cargo ship off the coast of Japan on June 17.
“We’ve lost trust and confidence in their ability to lead in those positions and they will not return to the ship,” Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William Moran told reporters at the Pentagon late Thursday. The 7th Fleet also said several junior officers were relieved of duty.
While the final investigation into the collision is ongoing, Moran said: “We do not have to have the investigation complete to start the process.”
The Fitzgerald’s commanding officer, Cdr. Bryce Benson, and the executive officer, Cdr. Sean Babbiit, were both sleeping, and the master chief petty officer, Brice Baldwin, were not on the bridge at the time of the collision, according to the Navy.
The bow of the cargo ship directly struck the commander’s cabin, according to the Navy’s report detailing the immediate aftermath of the collision.
The report said Benson “was hanging from the side of the ship” when he was retrieved by crewmembers who were forced to use a sledgehammer, kettlebell and their bodies to break through the door and gain access to the heavily damaged cabin.
Benson was medically evacuated via helicopter due to the severity of his injuries and he was placed on limited duty status on July 11.
“There are a lot of sailors” who have undergone the non-judicial punishment process and “survived and done well,” Moran said, but “when you look at what happened here, it’s going to be pretty hard to recover from this.”
“Serious mistakes were made by members of the crew,” Moran said, adding that “clearly at some point the bridge team lost situational awareness.”
One additional sailor has already undergone the captain’s mast. Several other sailors are due to go through the process, including the people who were on watch that night.
The Navy also plans to review its training and qualification procedures in the wake of the deadly collision, in which the Fitzgerald was heavily damaged. It will have to be brought back to the US for repairs.
“The collision was avoidable and both ships demonstrated poor seamanship. Within Fitzgerald, flawed watch stander teamwork and inadequate leadership contributed to the collision that claimed the lives of seven Fitzgerald sailors, injured injured three more, and damaged both ships,” the 7th Fleet said in a statement.
The Navy’s report on the immediate aftermath provides a harrowing account of US sailors attempting to escape a rapidly flooding sleeping area that filled with water within minutes after the cargo ship’s bow tore a hole in the side of the Fitzgerald. Of the 35 sailors in the sleeping area at the time of the collision, 28 were able to escape, but the remaining seven sailors died.
The report describes a chaotic scene following the collision between the Fitzgerald and the much larger cargo ship. Some sailors were thrown from their beds, while others remained asleep. Sailors ran through the sleeping area, attempting to awaken their still-sleeping crew members.
“At least one sailor had to be pulled from his rack and into the water before he woke up,” the report said, referring to the Naval term for a bed.
The crew had to move quickly to escape the area using a ladder before the sleeping area became completely flooded, with the report saying the room “was nearly flooded within a span of 30 to 60 seconds.”
“By the time the third sailor to leave arrived at the ladder, the water was already waist deep,” the report said.
Rear Adm. Charles F. Williams, who led the probe into the collision, wrote in the memo accompanying the report that the sailors in that sleeping area “should be commended for their response to the dangerous and deadly threat they faced.”
Moran said the investigation will have to be completed before any medals or awards can be adjudicated to any sailors for acts of heroism.
An acting commanding officer had been assigned to the Fitzgerald following the collision, and a permanent replacement, Cdr. Garrett Miller, has been identified and is expected to take command soon.
The full investigation will have to be completed in order for the Navy to assign responsibility for the collision.