A Navy cryptologic technician died during a secretive mission to an undisclosed country in 2021 after a freak windstorm caused part of the building in which her team was operating to collapse, according to an internal investigation obtained by Navy Times.
Cryptologic Technician (Technical) 1st Class Robin Nicole Collins, 26, was just three days into her deployment when she died on July 18, 2021.
“The evidence demonstrates that CTT1 Collins’ death was a tragic accident due to unpredictable, sudden and intense weather conditions that caused the roof and chimney of a building to collapse on CTT1 Collins,” the investigator wrote. “Within the span of minutes, the weather transformed from a calm sunny day to extreme winds, strong enough to tear the roof from a chimney.”
She was based out of Naples, Italy, with U.S. 6th Fleet.
Citing operational security, the Navy declined to say where she was deployed at the time of her death, and the location is redacted in records provided to Navy Times in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Collins was on “temporary duty” that day with a chief cryptologic technician-networks, an intelligence specialist second class and a third individual whose name and position is redacted.
While the team had planned to camp in tents, they had located a building on July 15 that had electricity but no plumbing.
An engineering assessment was not conducted, but “it had a fence for security, and a metal roof, flooring and walls that appeared to be relatively new,” the chief told investigators.
The building’s owner lived in another building nearby.
It had been a warm and still Sunday, and the team was taking a break and watching TV on a laptop in the main room while they cooked lunch.
“Without warning,” the wind picked up, and the intel specialist estimated that gusts reached 90 mph, flattening the four-foot-tall grass that surrounded their building.
The team raced to close all the windows, and her teammates recall Collins being near the back of the large room, five to 10 feet from the fireplace and chimney, according to the investigation.
“The team saw the roof begin to move and heard the roof cracking, which caused (the chief) to yell for everyone to get out,” the investigator wrote. “As the ceiling cracked, large sections began to fall on the floor.”
The three scrambled outside, assuming Collins was behind them.
When they realized she wasn’t, they raced to get back inside, but debris blocked the front door, according to the investigation.
The intel specialist smashed a window and climbed through to find Collins beneath a five-foot pile of roof and chimney rubble.
The chief called the U.S. embassy to request a helicopter. The intel specialist removed a large section of chimney and found Collins “purple in color and unresponsive,” the investigation states.
The intel specialist began CPR as the chief and the other individual worked to remove the other rubble under which Collins was trapped.
They continued CPR for the next 45 minutes, until a helicopter arrived.
Medical personnel onboard pronounced Collins dead at the scene.
An autopsy ruled her death to be caused by “mechanical asphyxia due to compression of the chest and abdomen,” according to the investigation.
The team estimated that less than 10 minutes elapsed between the start of the windstorm and the beginning of CPR.
“A boat arrived approximately 5 hours later and the team departed,” the investigation states. “(The chief) observed that the storm ripped off the building’s roof, destroyed the chimney, and the perimeter fence was ripped out of the ground (to include 2 feet of cement on fence posts).”
Investigators reported “significant delays” due to coordination and deconfliction with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the U.S. embassy and the local government regarding obtaining and translating officials documents.
While the preliminary inquiry investigation received its final command endorsement in March 2022, Navy Times was only provided the records in recent weeks.
Collins’ family did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Navy Times asked service officials to notify them that this report was being published.
The Navy’s 6th Fleet is a sprawling command, meaning Collins could have been operating in any number of locations when she died.
It covers half the Atlantic Ocean, spanning from the Arctic to the Antarctic coastline, as well as the Mediterranean and other European seas.
The command’s remit includes all of Russia and Europe, as well as nearly all of Africa, encompassing 105 countries in all.
The investigation into Collins’ death includes an “apostille,” a way to authenticate documents such as death certificates that has been in place since 1961. To date, 124 countries are part of this system, so that record sheds little light on the question of where Collins was deployed.
She is at least the second cryptologic sailor to die on a mission in recent years.
Cryptologic Technician (Interpretive) Senior Chief Shannon M. Kent, 35, and three other Americans died in a suicide bomb attack in Syria in 2019.
Cryptologic technicians like Collins collect and analyze electronic intelligence and conduct electronic warfare, while operating and maintaining electronic sensors and computer systems, according to the Navy.
It’s a cerebral and often-autonomous job that involves working with highly classified material.
Such sailors provide analysis to facilities in England and Spain, which fall under 6th Fleet’s area of operations, as well as other sites worldwide, while also creating and maintaining databases for other agencies.
Collins enlisted in 2016 and spent four months at the Navy’s Information Warfare Training Center before reporting to the Naples, Italy, based 6th Fleet in June 2020, according to her service record.
She was born in St. Louis and raised in Titusville, Florida, according to her obituary, and is survived by her parents, her twin sister, a brother and several other family members.
“Robin proudly served in the United States Navy, which became her family away from home,” the obituary states. “She was so very close with all her coworkers, and they were always there for each other through thick and thin.”
Collins played sports, loved cooking and “was fascinated by other cultures,” according to her obituary.
“Robin will be remembered for her beautiful smile and outgoing nature,” it continues. “She was so loving and full of happiness always. She put others before herself, and she truly cared for everyone. She was greatly loved and will be dearly missed by all who knew her.”
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.