Navy filing homicide charges for McCain, Fitz commanders

The commanders of two warships that collided with commercial vessels in the west Pacific last summer, killing 17 sailors, will face negligent homicide and other criminal charges, Navy officials said Tuesday.

Four destroyer Fitzgerald officers, including skipper Cmdr. Bryce Benson, will face charges of negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and hazarding a vessel for the June 17 incident that killed seven sailors off Japan, according to the Navy.

The three other officers, two lieutenants and one lieutenant j.g., were not identified in the Navy statement. Cmdr. William Speaks, a Navy spokesman, said that the process for deciding whether the officers will be court-martialed is “very early in the process.”

“Everyone apart from someone in the command triad has an expectation of privacy,” Speaks said.

Specifically, the charges have been preferred for possible court-martial, meaning the officers will face Article 32 hearings that will review evidence in each case to determine whether the officers should be court-martialed.

If courts-martial proceed for the unnamed officers, Speaks said their names and roles will be revealed then.

Benson was only identified as the ship’s commanding officer in the statement.

Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez, who was in command of the destroyer John S. McCain at the time of the Aug. 21 collision near Singapore that killed another 10 sailors, will face the same charges, according to the Navy.

An unidentified chief petty officer also faces a dereliction of duty charge, Navy officials said.

Non-judicial punishment actions are also being taken against four Fitzgerald and four McCain sailors, according to the Navy.

Benson and Sanchez were later relieved of command. It remains unclear when the hearings to decide whether to try the sailors on the charges will begin.

Benson was injured after the ACX Crystal vessel struck his living space on the Fitzgerald, and crew found him clinging to the side of the ship after the collision.

A few days before the McCain disaster in August, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran said a dozen Fitzgerald sailors, including Benson, would face non-judicial punishment in connection to the disaster.

It was not immediately clear Tuesday whether Benson would face charges that differed from previous disciplinary actions.

The developments Tuesday afternoon follow a Defense News report earlier today that Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, the Navy’s top surface warfare officer, is expected to step down this week ahead of a forthcoming recommendation that he be relieved.

Rowden is expected to step down from command of Naval Surface Forces this week, according to sources.

Adm. James Caldwell, the director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, suggested Rowden’s relief as part of recommendations issued after the Fitzgerald and McCain disasters.

Caldwell is serving as the so-called “consolidated disposition authority” and is tasked with sussing out disciplinary recommendations in connection to the incidents.

Rowden and Pacific Fleet leader Adm. Scott Swift announced their retirements shortly after the collisions.

The former head of the Japan-based 7th Fleet, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, was fired in the aftermath of the collisions, as was Rear Adm. Charles Williams, a task force commander, as well as Destroyer Squadron 15 head Capt. Jeffrey Bennett.

A Navy report issued last year faulted bridge crews on both warships, including a breakdown in standard Navy procedures and poor decision-making by officers and sailors.

In both instances, sailors on the bridge failed to sound a ship-wide alarm notifying the crew of danger.

Survivors who escaped below-the-surface living areas after the collisions reported furious floods of seawater, and some McCain sailors were crushed in their racks.

Benson had only been in command of the Fitzgerald for less than a month when the collision occurred.

The report faulted the officer of the deck for failing to make contact with the commercial ship before the collision, and for not trying to maneuver out of the way until a minute before impact.

Sanchez, the McCain CO, was on the bridge as the ship entered busy waters near Singapore.

Confusion reigned on the ship in the minutes before that collision, as sailors attempted to mitigate a perceived steering problem.

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson are scheduled to testify before the House Armed Services Committee Thursday regarding the state of the surface fleet.