Hearing Date Set for Commander in USS Fitzgerald Collision

Cmdr. Bryce Benson (U.S. Navy photo)
Cmdr. Bryce Benson (U.S. Navy photo)

The former commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer Fitzgerald and three unidentified junior officers from the ship are set to appear at hearings in Washington, D.C., next month, Navy officials announced Monday.

Cmdr. Bryce Benson was removed from his post last August following the June 2017 collision of the Fitzgerald with the Philippine-flagged container ship ACX Crystal. Seven sailors died in the disaster.

An investigation would later find the collision, which took place off the coast of Tokyo, was caused by ineffective watchstanding and failure on the part of the bridge crew to react in a timely manner and pull the ship off its collision course with the merchant vessel.

According to a Navy announcement Monday, Benson is scheduled to appear at an Article 32 investigative hearing May 21. The hearing will determine whether there is enough evidence to send Benson to court-martial on charges of dereliction, hazarding a vessel, and negligent homicide.

One Fitzgerald junior officer is scheduled for arraignment and entry of pleas at a special court-martial May 8 on a charge of negligent dereliction of duty resulting in death, and two more junior officers will appear at an Article 32 hearing May 9, according to the release.

The process of charging ships' crew and commanders with criminal offenses -- a very unusual move following a deadly accident -- has taken months to unfold.

In February, former Fitzgerald executive officer Cmdr. Sean Babbitt and former command master chief Brice Baldwin were found guilty at non-judicial punishment proceedings for dereliction of duty, and were given punitive letters of reprimand.

One other officer also received a reprimand, and another had a finding of guilt set aside. Another officer and an enlisted sailor from the Fitzgerald had charges dismissed.

Meanwhile, the Navy has also been carrying out criminal proceedings against crew members of the guided-missile destroyer John S. McCain, which collided with the Liberian-flagged tanker Alnic MC outside the Strait of Malacca on Aug. 21, 2017. Ten sailors died in the collision.

Former McCain executive officer Cmdr. Jessie Sanchez received non-judicial punishment in February and was given a letter of reprimand.

The former commanding officer of the ship, Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, who is accused of dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel, and negligent homicide, has yet to face trial.

Investigations showed confusion on the bridge of the McCain and lack of knowledge among some about how to drive the ship contributed to the "preventable" disaster.

Navy officials said Monday that an update on hearings for McCain crew members would be forthcoming.

Originally, hearings for the former commanders of the McCain and Fitzgerald had been set for March. They were reportedly delayed because defense attorneys requested additional time to prepare cases.

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

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