Watch standers to face non-judicial punishment in incident that killed seven sailors
The Navy plans to discipline up to a dozen Fitzgerald sailors, including the commanding officer, in connection to the destroyer’s fatal June collision with a commercial ship that led to the drownings of seven sailors in their berthing.
In addition to Cmdr. Bryce Benson, the CO who was injured when the ACX Crystal struck the ship on June 17, the executive officer, Cmdr. Sean M. Babbitt, and Command Master Chief Brice A. Baldwin will also undergo non-judicial punishment this week, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran said Thursday.
The command triad will be detached from the Fitzgerald once the disciplinary proceedings are finished, Moran said.
Moran discussed the disciplinary measures Thursday after the release of a 41-page investigation into the crew’s harrowing response to the catastrophe. The report does not offer any details about the events leading up to the collision, which have not been made public,
Sailors had less than a minute to escape as seawater blasted through a massive hole in the destroyer Fitzgerald after a container ship struck its starboard side on June 19.
Benson was trapped in his quarters after the Crystal struck the Fitz’s starboard side, and he was found hanging from the side of the ship, according to a Navy report released Thursday.
He was relieved of command earlier this summer. Navy officials said at the time that the relief was so that Benson could recover from his injuries.
Divers will assess the damage and try to access spaces that flooded when Fitzgerald collided with a merchant ship four-times its size.
Seventh Fleet head Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin has completed NJP proceedings for one Fitz sailor this week and is expected to conduct similar proceedings for the others on Friday in Japan, Moran said.
Moran declined to say whether the triad will face administrative separation from the Navy.
Other sailors slated to be disciplined include “people that were on watch that night,” he said.
Moran said “the bridge lost situational awareness” before the Crystal struck the destroyer at about 1:30 a.m. local time off the coast of Japan.
The rate of closure and lack of maneuver space meant there was “not enough time nor room” to avoid a collision, he said.
Moran declined to say whether any alarm sounded before the collision.
A timeline of events in the line of duty report released Thursday makes no mention of any pre-collision alarm, but states that the Fitzgerald sounded “a collision alarm for two seconds” two minutes after impact.
The Navy generally does not disclose the identifies of those who undergo non-judicial punishment.
Other Navy investigations regarding who was at fault in the collision remain ongoing, and Moran declined to discuss the details.
He said that disciplining Fitzgerald sailors does not indicate the destroyer’s crew was solely at fault.
“We don’t know yet whether the Fitzgerald is fully responsible for the mishap,” he said. “But we know mistakes were made.”
More disciplinary actions could come about as investigations continue, Moran said.
The portions of a line of duty investigation released Thursday are generally used to determine what happened for the sake of survivor’s benefits.
The Navy has completed its safety investigation into the fatal collision.
The sea service’s third investigation into the incident involves which parties were at fault, as well as any potential monetary settlements, Moran said.
“It is not over,” he said. “We’ve got a ways to go.”
Moran said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson would fully explain what happened after the investigations are completed.
He estimated that such a public explanation would come “weeks from now.”
Benson took command of the Fitzgerald less than a month before the fatal incident.
Babbitt came aboard in March, while Baldwin had been on the Fitzgerald since 2014, according to Navy records.