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Hear the audio: Chaos on bridge before brutal ship collision

May. 14, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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Bridge audio from USS Porter’s Aug. 12 collision
Bridge audio from USS Porter’s Aug. 12 collision: Track begins at 12:50 a.m. For more about what you're hearing and what took place prior to the recording, read "About the audio" infobox, below.
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About the audio

The pilothouse recording above begins immediately after Porter turned left to pass ahead of a ship going the opposite direction. The destroyer, with another warship following, had been headed southwest on course 230 at 20 knots.
The officer of the deck wanted to steer right to come back to this base course. This aggravated Porter’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Martin Arriola, who was focused on shipping traffic headed the opposite way and converging on the channel back through the Strait of Hormuz. Arriola and the OOD are the most prominent voices in the recording. Others relayed course and speed changes to the amphibious dock landing ship Gunston Hall, which was following Porter.
After clearing the vessel, the OOD spotted another ship — later determined to be a supertanker — behind it and realized Porter was in danger. Arriola decided to turn left, an unusual maneuver, to streak ahead of aship’s bow a second time.
Shortly after the collision, about 3 minutes and 47 seconds into the recording, a voice announces the collision was on Porter’s port side. That is incorrect: The impact was on the ship’s starboard side, just forward of the pilothouse.
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Not long after midnight Aug. 12, the destroyer Porter cleared the Strait of Hormuz and entered the Persian Gulf. Five months into their deployment, it was the ship’s 13th straits transit and the commanding officer, Cmdr. Martin Arriola, left the pilothouse to attend to other matters.

Meanwhile, the destroyer was on a course to dart through tankers headed in the opposite direction.

Arriola returned to the bridge. He and his watchstanders saw a ship ahead that seemed to show the international signal warning other ships to stay clear. Porter turned to port, an unusual move, and crossed ahead of it. Then they spotted something a mariner never wants to see: the bow of another ship, which had been hidden behind the other vessel.

The officer of the deck recommended turning right immediately, the standard maneuver. Arriola disagreed. The ship slowed instead, the crew weighing their options. But the supertanker continued bearing down. The OOD recognized that the merchant was crossing ahead of them but didn’t press the issue. In the confusion, Arriola made a fateful choice — turn left and streak across a vessel’s bow for the second time.

“Hard left rudder!” Arriola bellowed, according to a pilothouse recording. Arriola ordered five whistle blasts, the danger signal, and full speed to try to make it across the tanker’s path.

“All engines ahead flank,” Arriola ordered. “Let’s go. Get me up there, flank!”

Porter did not make it clear in time. The most complete and vivid picture of these missteps and what happened next has emerged from newly released ship logs and recordings, including a four-minute audio tape of the collision, all obtained by Navy Times via a Freedom of Information Act request.

Within 30 seconds, the supertanker’s bow smashed the destroyer’s side with a “boom,” the harrowing sound of a ship as long as an aircraft carrier and moving at roughly 14 knots ramming the warship, tearing a gaping hole in the Porter’s hull forward of the pilothouse. Sleeping sailors were flung awake. Minor flooding and fires broke out. Circuits flickered. Sailors picked themselves up and registered what had happened.

Miraculously, no one was injured on either ship in the collision, which took the destroyer out of service for a month and will cost the service upward of $50 million to fix.

Three weeks later, Arriola was fired after Navy investigators found a series of mistakes leading up to the collision: The ship was going too fast, Arriola was distracted by releasing routine reports, the ship did not call the merchants to arrange passage and made a highly unusual turn to port. Correcting any of these errors could have prevented the collision, a safety investigation concluded, noting that no one questioned the CO’s call to turn left.

Many aspects of the collision, one in a series of 2012 mishaps, remain cloudy. The Office of the Judge Advocate General of the Navy and the Naval Safety Center have denied open records requests for investigative reports.

The released files were not produced for these investigations but a Naval Surface Force Atlantic spokesman declined to discuss them, citing the possibility of litigation by the owner of the supertanker Otowasan. The Navy had not been sued as of May 9, said Jen Zeldis, an OJAG spokeswoman, in an email.

Porter returned to Norfolk, Va., in early November under a new CO and is now slated to start repairs at a shipyard there.

Arriola, 43, who was reassigned to SURFLANT, did not respond to emails and phone messages seeking comment.

The aftermath

After the collision at 12:53 a.m., the ship set general quarters to contain fires and flooding. Meanwhile, the other warship in the column, dock landing ship Gunston Hall, came near to assist and took photos of the damage.

Repair lockers manned up to fight small fires that had broken out. Others set to pumping out water and securing ruptured pipes. The impact downed countless communications networks, computers and weapon systems, some temporarily and others permanently. It affected everything from the rudders to the digital charting system, the logs show.

Scribbled notes on over a dozen pages detail the crew’s damage control efforts over the ensuing hours that night. They made notes on scratch paper in pen and grease pencil detailing the damage and progress containing it. “Aux 1 pway airlock flooding. Radio chill water inside radio,” one of these sheets said, for example.

Many questions remain. What was the relative position of the three ships in the minutes before the collision? Did the combat information center make maneuvering recommendations or even speak up? Why was the bridge surprised by the supertanker, which radar should have picked up?

Still, the new records detail many of the ship’s mistakes and, here and there, contain cautionary notes that went unheeded. The operations officer penned one in the night orders reviewed by each watch team.

“We are heading towards the SOH this evening for an overnight transit,” this officer wrote. “Make sure your head is in the game.”

Arriola signed the night orders without a note.

But in italicized type above his signature block was the solemn warning, “Eternal vigilance is the price of safety.”

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