Navy: Captains of Ships in Pacific Collisions to Face Criminal Charges

  • U.S. Navy Commanders Bryce Benson (left) and Alfredo J. Sanchez (right) (Navy Photos)
    U.S. Navy Commanders Bryce Benson (left) and Alfredo J. Sanchez (right) (Navy Photos)
  • FILE - In this June 18, 2017 photo, the damaged USS Fitzgerald is docked at the U.S. Naval base in Yokosuka after colliding with the container ship ACX Crystal off Japan. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)
    FILE - In this June 18, 2017 photo, the damaged USS Fitzgerald is docked at the U.S. Naval base in Yokosuka after colliding with the container ship ACX Crystal off Japan. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)

A four-star admiral has recommended that the commanding officers of two ships involved in separate deadly collisions last summer should face court-martial, the Navy announced Tuesday.

In all, five officers and a chief petty officer have been recommended for possible criminal charges following the convening of a Consolidated Disposition Authority headed by Adm. Frank Caldwell, director of the Navy's nuclear propulsion program.

An additional eight sailors were identified for non-judicial punishment.

From the destroyer USS Fitzgerald, where seven sailors were killed in June when the ship collided with a Philippine-flagged container ship southwest of Tokyo, four officers have been identified for charges, including former commanding officer Cmdr. Bryce Benson, said Capt. Greg Hicks, Navy chief of information.

USNI News first reported the charge recommendations Tuesday.

In addition to Benson, two lieutenants and one lieutenant junior grade have been recommended for discipline. The charges recommended against them include dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel, and negligent homicide.

An investigation into the Fitzgerald collision, reviewed by Military.com, found that watchstanders were looking the wrong way as the ship entered a collision course with the container ship ACX Crystal. When the danger was finally identified, the officer of the deck froze, giving an order and then retracting it as danger rapidly approached.

The investigation also revealed that there had been a near-collision a month prior to the crash, but no actions were taken to prevent another such incident.

"The command leadership did not foster a culture of critical self-assessment," investigators found.

Benson was badly injured in the collision and ultimately had to be medically evacuated from the ship.

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In the case of the destroyer USS John S. McCain, which collided with a Liberian-flagged tanker, Alnic MC, just east of the Straits of Malacca in August, Caldwell recommended the ship's former commanding officer, Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, face charges of dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel, and negligent homicide. He also recommended that an unnamed chief petty officer face a charge of dereliction of duty.

An investigation into the McCain collision, released in November, revealed massive confusion on the bridge as the ship made an early morning passage through one of the busiest sea lanes in the world.

Sanchez was on the bridge, but had not summoned a sea-and-anchor detail to assist with the movement, according to the investigation.

When he observed the ship's helmsman was having trouble staying on course and controlling speed, Sanchez ordered the duties be divided up. But the message was not communicated, and chaos ensued, resulting in the helmsman incorrectly declaring the ship had lost steering.

The investigation also found that several of the sailors on watch had been transferred from the cruiser USS Antietam, and were not familiar with steering controls for the destroyer.

If Sanchez had set a sea-and-anchor detail to help, the collision would not have occurred, the investigation found.

Four sailors from each ship were recommended for non-judicial punishment, Hicks said.

"The announcement of an Article 32 hearing and referral to a court-martial is not intended to and does not reflect a determination of guilt or innocence related to any offenses," he said in a statement. "All individuals alleged to have committed misconduct are entitled to a presumption of innocence."

Dates for Article 32 hearings have yet to be announced.

Additional administrative actions are being conducted for members of both crews, including non-judicial punishment for four Fitzgerald and four John S. McCain crewmembers.

Information regarding further actions, if warranted, will be discussed at the appropriate time.

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

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