WASHINGTON NAVY YARD — Nearly 13 months after the fatal collision between the destroyer Fitzgerald and the merchant vessel ACX Crystal, the Fitz’s former commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, stood at attention Tuesday in the Washington Navy Yard courtroom as the prosecution read the charges levied against him.
Benson pleaded not guilty to charges of dereliction of duty and neglect resulting in death, and negligence in the improper handling of a vessel for his role in the June 17, 2017, collision off the coast of Japan that claimed the lives of seven sailors.
Gunner’s Mate Seaman Dakota Kyle Rigsby, Yeoman 3rd Class Shingo Alexander Douglass, Sonar Technician 3rd Class Ngoc T. Truong Huynh, Gunner’s Mate 1st Class Noe Hernandez, Fire Controlman 1st Class Carlos Victor Ganzon Sibayan, Personnel Specialist 1st Class Xavier Alec Martin and Chief Petty Officer Fire Controlman Gary Leo Rehm Jr. were killed when the 730-foot, 29,060-ton merchant vessel punched a gaping hole into their berthing.
Benson was asleep during the early morning hours when the Fitz was rocked. When sailors pried apart twisted metal to gain access to Benson’s crushed quarters, they found the confused CO clinging to the side of the ship.
He suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of the accident.
The general court-martial to determine the former CO’s fate will begin Jan. 28, according to the presiding military judge, Cmdr. Jonathan Stephens.
Both Benson and Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez, who commanded the destroyer McCain at the time of its Aug. 21 fatal collision, were originally charged with negligent homicide. Those charges were dropped in both cases.
Sanchez pleaded guilty back in May, as part of a pretrial agreement, to dereliction of duty for his role in the collision off the coast of Singapore.
Exactly why Benson’s negligent homicide charge was dropped remains unclear.
The former Fitz skipper waived his right to an Article 32 hearing in May.
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.