On her living room table, Rachel Eckels keeps a note her son wrote when he was 4. On the refrigerator door hangs a later photo of the young man, movie-star handsome in his dress-blue uniform.
And on the kitchen counter, in a FedEx box, is his death certificate.
Timothy Eckels Jr., 23, of Manchester, Md., a Navy Information Systems Technician 2nd Class aboard the USS John S. McCain, was killed in August when the destroyer collided with a tanker in the crowded Singapore Strait.
Eckels was one of three Marylanders killed this year in two separate collisions involving ships of the Navy’s 7th Fleet in the Pacific Ocean. Electronics Technician 1st Class Kevin Bushell, 26, of Gaithersburg, also died aboard the McCain on Aug. 21. Petty Officer 1st Class Xavier Martin, 24, of Halethorpe, died aboard the USS Fitzgerald on June 17.
Now, their families are grappling for explanations — and growing increasingly dissatisfied with the Navy’s response.
“I want answers,” Rachel Eckels said one recent afternoon in her Arlington apartment. In her lap lay an open folder filled with documents related to the crash.
“It just doesn’t make sense to us.”
The grieving parents are questioning the official accounts that they have received from the Navy. They say that the 72-page report released by the Navy last month puts too much blame on the ship’s crew while glossing over problems with training, manpower and maintenance that have plagued the Japan-based 7th fleet for years. And they’re angry at what they view as a lack of will in Washington to pay for the demands placed on the military.
“How dare you blame the crew?” said Darrold Martin, Xavier Martin’s father.
Darrold Martin said his son called days before the incident to say the ship lost power and was forced to return to its base in Yokosuka, Japan. The Navy veteran said that he later learned there had also been a problem with one of the ship’s radars. Neither incident was mentioned in the report.
The Fitzgerald crashed into the Philippines-flagged container ship ACX Crystal off the coast of Japan in early morning darkness.
“There’s more to it than this,” Martin said, waving a hand over the document on his dining room table.
The Halethorpe man also pointed to a near miss in May, when the Fitzgerald almost collided with another ship: “That wasn’t a wake-up call?”
The 7th Fleet, the Navy’s largest deployed overseas, has suffered at least six high-profile accidents this year.
In January, the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam ran aground in Tokyo Bay. In May, the USS Lake Champlain collided with a fishing vessel east of the Korean Peninsula.
Ten sailors died aboard the McCain. Seven died on the Fitzgerald. The 17 fatalities represent more ship-related deaths in one year than the Navy has experienced in at least two decades.
The 7th Fleet operates in some of the world’s most volatile waters. North Korea is rattling its neighbors and the world with nuclear detonations and missile tests, and China has angered the international community by building islands in the South China Sea. Both have drawn a large U.S. presence and placed high demands on U.S. sailors.
Concerns about maintenance in the 7th Fleet have been well documented for years. For the families, each mishap provokes anew the fear that nothing has changed — that it will happen again and again.
The Navy says that it has taken steps to address the problems. The commander of the 7th Fleet, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, was relieved of duty in August. Officials have stepped up training and required ships to begin broadcasting their location in congested waters — a technology, often required on commercial vessels, that the Navy rarely used.
They also have recommended further reforms, including creating a “fatigue and endurance management policy,” replacing aging radars and dozens of other new policies.
The Navy did not make anyone available for an interview for this article. Cmdr. Bill Speaks, a Navy spokesman, responded to the Baltimore Sun’s questions with a lengthy statement.
In the statement, Speaks said the Navy “certainly regret[s] any doubts some of those family members may still have about how we have handled the investigation, or our duty to inform them.”
“From the moments after the first report of a collision involving USS Fitzgerald, through the release of our investigations into the collisions involving both USS Fitzgerald and USS John S McCain, we have had no higher priority than tending to the needs of the families of the sailors lost in those collisions,” Speaks said.
The Navy, along with the rest of the military, has been operating under budget constraints enacted by Congress in 2011. Officials have acknowledged that spending caps have placed enormous constraints on Navy operations. Lawmakers might be poised to lift them this year.
The Navy acknowledged that fatigue among sailors played a role in the Fitzgerald collision. Rachel Eckels said her son, a 2012 graduate of Manchester Valley High School, regularly worked 12-hour shifts on the McCain, sometimes with as little as two hours’ rest between them. “I’m so tired,” he would say over and over again when they spoke on the phone.
“He was always tired,” Rachel Eckels said. “Always.”
The Government Accountability Office found that some sailors were often working more than 100 hours a week.
While Thomas S. Bushell smoked on the front step of his home in Gaithersburg, Md. — a habit he had picked up again, after 12 years, when he learned that his son was missing — he acknowledged that “most people think all their kids are perfect.” But he stressed that his son was a man of honesty and integrity, someone with a “great soul” who knew right from wrong at an early age.
“To me, he was destined for greater things,” he said.
Like the others who lost loved ones in the collisions, he said that he believes there is more to what happened than the Navy is saying. Families, he said, have received conflicting information about whether the sailors who died were awake or asleep at the time of the collision.
The report describes in harrowing detail the chaos aboard both the Fitzgerald and the McCain when the collisions breached sleeping quarters. As the last group of Fitzgerald sailors tried to escape up a ladder, the water reached their necks. One sailor said he had begun to breathe water when a shipmate pulled him to safety.
Ultimately, he said, he believes the cause of the McCain crash was a failure of leadership.
“They put training aside to do missions,” he said. “They were compromising the training . . . because they had to be out on patrol. They were on patrol twice or three times as much as any other ships in any other fleet.”
On the McCain, Navy investigators concluded that there was confusion after the commanding officer divided the ship’s steering and speed among different helm stations. Crew members keeping watch at the helm had “insufficient proficiency and knowledge of the systems,” the report said. The bridge ultimately lost track of who was steering the ship, the Navy said, as well as the tanker’s course.
The Navy found that the Fitzgerald did not have the right of way when it collided with the ACX Crystal. The bridge crew misjudged the Crystal’s course and did not try to maneuver out of the way until it was too late. Furthermore, investigators found, “officers possessed an unsatisfactory level of knowledge of the International Rules of the Nautical Road.” Watch team members were “not familiar with basic radar fundamentals, impeding effective use.”
None of the sailors who died in the McCain or Fitzgerald collisions were blamed for the collisions. But that’s not the point, Darrold Martin said. By downplaying the broader issues facing the fleet in the incident report, he said, the Navy is not confronting the real problems.
“This is not closure,” he said.