The preliminary report described in detail the terrible moments after the collision and the rescue efforts aboard the ship.
Dozens of sailors who were rocked from their slumber, the report said, raced in the dark to escape from their flooding quarters. Within 90 seconds, seawater rushing through a gaping hole in the starboard hull was at first waist-deep, then neck-high as sailors pushed aside mattresses, wall lockers and other floating debris to clamber up a ladder to safety. The last sailor pulled from the chaos was underwater when his shipmates yanked him up.
The freighter crashed directly into Commander Benson’s stateroom, ripping open a huge hole and trapping him inside. It took five sailors, using a sledgehammer and kettlebell, 25 minutes to break down the door to his cabin to rescue the captain, who was seriously injured and hanging from the side of the ship.
In summing up the failures of the captain and his crew, the vice chief of naval operations, Adm. Bill Moran, said the report made clear that “serious mistakes were made by members of the crew.” As the shipping lanes got more crowded that night, Admiral Moran said the sailors on watch “lost situational awareness,” and by the time they realized their errors, it was too late to avoid a collision with the much larger freighter.
What the report released on Thursday did not answer, and what is still under a separate ongoing investigation, is how the collision could have happened. Were lookouts on watch scanning the seas for other ships and, if so, why did they not see the 728-foot freighter, the ACX Crystal, stacked with more than 1,000 containers, bearing on the destroyer?
How did radar officers on the bridge and in the combat information center below fail to detect the freighter closing in? And why was Commander Benson not awakened and summoned to the bridge, as standard protocol requires, to ensure safe passage?
Admiral Moran said it could be weeks before the investigation is completed into the causes and culpability for the accident.
Commander Benson and the Fitzgerald’s second-in-command executive officer, Comdr. Sean Babbitt, both of whom were asleep in their cabins when the ships collided, and the Fitzgerald’s senior enlisted sailor, Master Chief Petty Officer Brice Baldwin, were relieved of their duties aboard the Fitzgerald. Commander Benson, as well as several sailors on watch that night, will face what the military calls nonjudicial punishment.
In today’s competitive Navy, the chances of these men being promoted with such black marks on their records is extremely remote.
Admiral Moran cautioned that as the investigation into the accident’s cause proceeds, more sailors could face disciplinary action. It was not clear whether any crew members would face court-martial.
The report laid out a chilling scenario in which sailors were awakened suddenly by a loud noise and forced to evacuate amid fast-rising waters and in near-darkness.
The two ships that collided could not have been more different.
The 9,000-ton, $1.5 billion Fitzgerald, operating out of the Yokosuka naval base, was wrapping up a long day of training. The 29,000-ton Crystal, which is more than 200 feet longer than the Fitzgerald, had been chartered by a Japanese company to bring cargo from Nagoya, on Japan’s central coast, to Tokyo. Manned by a Filipino crew, it was far less damaged than the Fitzgerald.
Within seconds of the collision, seawater poured though a 13- by 17-foot hole in the starboard hull, and the 505-foot Fitzgerald listed sharply to the starboard side. The ship radio room was damaged, and much of its communications gear ruined or left without power. Below decks, the crew was plunged into darkness except for red emergency lights.
United States Navy ships and their crews train extensively for emergencies on board such as collisions and fires. Emergency crews responded immediately to reports of damage and trapped sailors across the ship.
The Fitzgerald had a crew of about 300 sailors, and the crisis focused on a sleeping compartment called Berthing 2, which has 42 beds in triple bunks spanning one side of the ship across to the other, two decks below the main deck.
The area also had a lounge filled with sofas, chairs, a table and a television set.
Of the 42 sailors assigned to Berthing 2 at the time of collision, five were on watch and two were not aboard ship. Of the 35 remaining sailors in the crew area, 28 escaped the flooding and seven died.
Some of the surviving sailors said they heard a loud noise at the time of impact. Others were thrown from their beds. Still others said they did not realize what happened and stayed in bed. Some remained asleep.
Within seconds, though, sailors were yelling, “Water on deck! Get out!” Others began waking up shipmates who had slept through the initial impact. At least one had to be pulled from his bed and into the water before he woke up. Senior sailors checked for any who might still be in their beds.
Sailors told investigators that after the initial shock, they lined up calmly and orderly and walked several steps through the rushing water to climb a port side ladder and escape through a watertight hatch.
By the time the last group of sailors arrived at the bottom of the ladder, the water was up to their necks. Two sailors who had been helping others from the bottom of the ladder were eventually forced to climb the ladder as water reached the very top of the berthing compartment.
Once through the hatch, the sailors continued to search, reaching into the dark water to try to find anyone they could. From the top of the ladder, the two sailors pulled two others from the flooded compartment. Both of the rescued sailors were completely underwater when they were pulled to safety.
The last sailor to be pulled up from the murky darkness had been in the bathroom at the time of the collision and a flood of water knocked him to the floor. At one point he was pinned between the lockers floating past him and the compartment ceiling, but he was able to reach for a pipe on the ceiling to pull himself free. He made his way to the only light he could see, which was coming from the portside hatch.
He was swimming toward the hatch, the report said, “when he was pulled from the water, red-faced and with bloodshot eyes. He reported that when taking his final breath before being saved, he was already submerged and breathed in water.”
Twenty-seven sailors escaped Berthing 2 from the port side. One other sailor escaped from the starboard side.
A Japanese coast guard helicopter lowered a rescue basket to lift the badly injured Commander Benson off the listing ship and whisk him to a Navy hospital in Yokosuka. Other American and Japanese military vessels and aircraft helped in the rescue effort.
Just before 5 a.m., with the flooding stabilized and operating under its own power, the Fitzgerald slowly started making its way back to port.
The next day, June 18, the bodies of the seven men who died were recovered by Navy divers from flooded spaces that had been sealed off to keep the ship from foundering, a wrenching decision by officers in the chaotic aftermath of the crash.