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Navy: Failures of Leaders, Watchstanders Led to Deadly Ship Collisions

In this Aug. 21, 2017, file photo, damage is visible as the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain steers towards Changi naval base in Singapore following a collision with the merchant vessel Alnic MC. (Joshua Fulton/U.S. Navy via AP)
In this Aug. 21, 2017, file photo, damage is visible as the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain steers towards Changi naval base in Singapore following a collision with the merchant vessel Alnic MC. (Joshua Fulton/U.S. Navy via AP)

Two Navy destroyer collisions in the Pacific this summer that claimed the lives of 17 sailors were preventable and resulted from multiple failures on the part of senior officers and sailors standing watch to avert disaster, according to a new investigation released Wednesday.

The destroyer Fitzgerald collided with the Philippine-flagged tanker ACX Crystal off the coast of Japan on June 17, claiming the lives of seven sailors when compartments flooded.

Two months later, on Aug. 21, the destroyer John S. McCain and Liberian-flagged container ship Alnic MC collided near the Straits of Malacca, causing the deaths of another 10 sailors.

"Both of these accidents were preventable and the respective investigations found multiple failures by watchstanders that contributed to the incidents," Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said in a statement released Wednesday. "We must do better."

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Released investigations totaling 72 pages showed that errors and failures -- ranging from inadequate training and knowledge to undue fatigue -- played roles in both collisions.

The Fitzgerald was not operating at a safe speed appropriate to the number of the ships in the area, officials found, and failed to notify other ships of danger and take proper action.

In addition, they found, watchstanders were paying attention only on Fitzgerald's port side, not on the starboard side, where three ships presented a collision risk.

In the case of the McCain, the report found, errors compounded following mistakes in operating the ship's steering and propulsion.

The ship made too sharp of a turn to the port, or left, side, just before the collision, officials found, a mistake due in part to the fact that several sailors on watch during the collision had been temporarily assigned from the cruiser Antietam, which has significantly different steering controls.

"Multiple bridge watchstanders lacked a basic level of knowledge on the steering control system, in particular the transfer of steering and thrust control between stations," investigators found.

The release of the reports comes a day before Richardson and the commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, Adm. Philip Davidson, are set to discuss the way forward for the Navy in a press conference at the Pentagon.

Hours after the McCain collision, Richardson commissioned Davidson to complete a 60-day comprehensive review of Navy surface warfare deployment and training practices and determine areas for improvement to prevent further disasters.

"We are a Navy that learns from mistakes, and the Navy is firmly committed to doing everything possible to prevent an accident like this from happening again," Richardson said Wednesday. "We must never allow an accident like this to take the lives of such magnificent young Sailors and inflict such painful grief on their families and the nation."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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Hope Seck Headlines Navy Crashes and Collisions Destroyers Equipment

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