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Top Navy admiral orders fleetwide investigation following latest collision at sea

By Anna Fifield, Dan Lamothe

August 21, 2017 at 4:50 PM

Damage to the port side is visible as the USS John S. McCain steers toward Changi naval base in Singapore following a collision with a merchant vessel early Monday. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton/AP)

SEOUL — The Navy's top admiral on Monday ordered a fleetwide review of seamanship and training in the Pacific after the service's fourth major accident at sea this year, a collision of the USS John S. McCain off Singapore that left 10 sailors missing.

The accident, which occurred Monday east of the Strait of Malacca about 5:24 a.m. local time, involving an oil tanker three times the size of the guided-missile destroyer, could be the Navy's second deadly ship collision in about two months. On June 17, the destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided off the coast of Japan with a much heavier container ship, drowning seven sailors after a berthing compartment inside the ship flooded in less than a minute.

Related: [The USS John S. McCain was struck in some of the world’s busiest waters]

In addition, the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing vessel on May 9 off the Korean Peninsula, and the guided- ­missile cruiser USS Antietam ran aground Jan. 31 in Tokyo Bay, near its home port of Yokosuka, Japan.

Navy Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, told reporters Monday that he was "devastated and heartbroken" by the disaster. The ship is now moored at Changi naval base in Singapore, with the amphibious assault ship USS America arriving to provide support and assistance to the McCain's crew.

Richardson said the string of accidents in the Pacific "demands more-forceful action," adding that there is "great cause for concern that there is something we are not getting at." He ordered Navy fleets across the world to take a day or two within the next week to review their procedures and training to make sure they are operating safely.

More significantly, Richardson ordered a separate investigation into how the Navy prepares its forces to operate in the Pacific.

"This will include, but not be limited to, looking at operational tempo, trends in personnel, materiel, maintenance and equipment," Richardson said. "It also will include a review of how we train and certify our surface warfare community, including tactical and navigational proficiency."

Richardson said he wanted a broad and diverse team reviewing operations as part of the investigation, with the Navy inspector general's office, the Navy Safety Center and outside experts all assisting. The probe will be led by Adm. Philip S. Davidson, who leads Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk.

"This review will be on a very tight timeline," Richardson said. "I want to get frequent updates. This requires urgent action. We need to get to it and take corrective action." He added that he wants it concluded "in the few-months time frame."

Richardson said the investigation of the collision will review all possibilities, including some that are seen as less likely by experts, such as an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack. He also said there is "no indication" that anyone aboard either crew deliberately caused the collision.

Richardson's comments came as the Navy continued a search for the missing sailors that included searches of the route the McCain had taken and an effort to explore flooded areas of the ship.

Photos of the disabled ship arriving in port showed a large hole on its left, or port, side at the waterline. More than 18 hours after the collision, the Navy had not disclosed any progress on the hunt for the missing sailors, but a search of flooded areas of the ship was expected to commence again after daybreak in Singapore.

The McCain is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer — named after the father and grandfather of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and nicknamed "Big Bad John" — that had been on its way to a routine port visit in Singapore after patrolling in the South China Sea.

Shipping data showed the ­Liberian-flagged merchant vessel Alnic MC was also on its way to Singapore when the ships collided before sunrise.

The 550-mile-long strait runs between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans, and is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. 

The Alnic has a gross tonnage of 30,000, compared with the McCain's 8,300.

The collision caused significant damage to the hull and flooded nearby compartments, including crew berthing, machinery and communications rooms, the 7th Fleet said in a statement. "Damage control efforts by the crew halted further flooding," it said. 

Four sailors were medically evacuated from the McCain by a Singapore armed-forces helicopter and were in a hospital in Singapore being treated for injuries that were not life-threatening. A fifth sailor who was injured did not require further medical attention, the statement said.

On the McCain's Facebook page, people were hoping for good news about the missing. "Praying all the sailors including my brother are safe & the missing are found!" wrote Natalie Bossio.

The 7th Fleet set up an emergency assistance center in Yokosuka for family members of the McCain crew, and Adm. Scott Swift, the head of the Pacific Fleet, is headed to Singapore to visit the damaged vessel, according to a fleet spokesman.

President Trump, returning to the White House on Sunday night, responded to reporters' questions about the collision by saying, "That's too bad." Later Sunday night, Trump tweeted, "Thoughts & prayers are w/ our @USNavy sailors aboard the #USSJohnSMcCain where search & rescue efforts are underway."

Sen. McCain said in a statement Monday that he agreed with the actions Richardson is taking.

"Our sailors who risk their lives every day, in combat and in training, deserve no less," the senator said. "I expect full transparency and accountability from the Navy leaders as they conduct the associated investigations and reviews."

The China Daily, a state newspaper, took the opportunity to denounce the U.S. Navy's activities in the South China Sea, where the United States and allies have been trying to keep Chinese expansion in check. China claims full sovereignty over the sea.

The U.S. Navy "is becoming a dangerous obstacle in Asian waters" while China is trying to boost navigational safety, the paper said in an unsigned editorial.

"Anyone should be able to tell who is to blame for militarizing the waters and posing a threat to navigation," it wrote.

Singapore's Maritime and Port Authority said that the tanker, which was carrying 12,000 tons of fuel oil, suffered damage 20 feet above the waterline but that none of its contents had leaked.

"There is no report of oil pollution and traffic in the Singapore Strait is unaffected," the authority said, adding that none of the crew on the tanker were injured.

Marine traffic data showed the Alnic at anchor off Singapore on Monday night.

The collision Monday came just days after the Navy described some of the errors that led to the USS Fitzgerald collision.

The Navy said last week that it would discipline a dozen sailors who were aboard the Fitzgerald, including the top two officers and the top enlisted sailor, whose careers are almost certainly over. Adm. William F. Moran, vice chief of naval operations, said the sailors who were on watch in the ship's bridge "lost situational awareness," contributing to the collision.

Lamothe reported from Washington. Thomas Gibbons-Neff in Washington contributed to this report. This post has been updated.

Read more:

Related: Top officers of the USS Fitzgerald to be disciplined following deadly collision

Related: Sailors made tough call to seal flooding ship areas; unclear if survivors inside

Related: ‘There wasn’t a lot of time’ as water flooded U.S. destroyer below decks

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Anna Fifield is The Post’s bureau chief in Tokyo, focusing on Japan and the Koreas. She previously reported for the Financial Times from Washington DC, Seoul, Sydney, London and from across the Middle East.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.

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