The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

7 sailors died aboard the USS Fitzgerald. Here are their stories.

TOP, FROM LEFT: Xavier Alec Martin, 24; Shingo Alexander Douglass, 25; Dakota Kyle Rigsby, 19; Carlos Victor Ganzon Sibayan, 23. BOTTOM, FROM LEFT: Ngoc Truong Huynh, 25; Noe Hernandez, 26; and Gary Leo Rehm Jr., 37. (U.S. Navy via AP)
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First came the crash, then the rushing waters — and then, the wave of grief.

The grief swelled after divers found seven bodies in the wreckage of the USS Fitzgerald off the coast of Japan this weekend. It washed across the United States, through dire phone calls, texts and solemn visits.

It reached the family of a 19-year-old firefighter who had enlisted in the Navy the year before, and the wife of a 19-year veteran who had been planning his retirement, and fell upon households from Connecticut to the southern end of Texas — people with little more in common than a sudden, immense loss on the other side of the world.

A Navy chaplain brought the news to Halethorpe, Md., where Personnel Specialist 1st Class Xavier Martin had lived.

On Father’s Day, Martin’s bereaved father stood in front of a CBS WJZ news crew and covered his mouth with his hand.

“He’s my only child,” Darrold Martin said. “He’s all I have.”

The father looked at the tattoo on his arm. His son, 24, had one to match, he said.

He looked at his phone. “He was trying to — all the comms were down. He was trying to call me,” he said.

The Fitzgerald collided with a ship four times its size off the coast of Japan in early-morning darkness. Military officials still don’t know what happened exactly, but it is clear that sailors tried to save one another in the aftermath. A woman told the Associated Press that four of those killed slept in the same room as her son, who had repeatedly dived into the flood trying to save them.

Seven U.S. sailors went missing after a U.S. Navy destroyer collided with a Philippine-flagged merchant ship off the coast of Japan on June 17. A number of the missing sailors were found dead in the destroyer's flooded berthing compartments. (Video: Elyse Samuels, Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

As rescuers searched for 37-year-old Gary Rehm Jr., a shipmate stayed on board the listing Fitzgerald and texted reports to his wife in the United States, Rehm’s mother-in-law told The Washington Post.

“She said she wasn’t leaving the ship until they found him,” Joan Braniff said. “They kicked her off, and she stayed on the pier until they found him.”

Now Erin Rehm is a widow. They had been married for nearly all of the fire controlman’s 19-year Navy service, Braniff said.

When Navy ships collide, there is virtually always human error involved

“You could tell right from the start he just adored her,” she said. They sang karaoke on a PlayStation in Hampton, Va., when he was home. They talked many times each day when he was deployed, as he had been on the Fitzgerald for nearly two years, according to the Navy.

“He was supposed to be coming home in September,” Braniff said.

And next year, she said, Rehm was planning to retire from the military and stay home for good.

“I assumed they would be together forever,” Braniff said.

Two hours up the highway from the home that Rehm will never return to, the Lake Monticello volunteer fire department held a news conference over the weekend to announce the death of Dakota Rigsby — 19 and one of their own.

The bodies of missing sailors have been found on board the destroyer USS Fitzgerald which came close to sinking after a collision with a container ship in Japan's Tokyo Bay on Saturday, June 17. (Video: Reuters)

An assistant chief called him a “good kid” and good firefighter, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. He’d left tiny Palmyra, Va., last year to become a gunner’s mate seaman. Stars and Stripes reported that Rigsby got to meet the secretary of the Navy before his last night on the Fitzgerald.

In Oakville, Conn., the sister of 25-year-old Sonar Technician 3rd Class Ngoc Truong Huynh remembered him as a quiet, sweet, selfless man who had not always desired a military life.

“But he wanted to do something adventurous,” Huynh’s sister told the Hartford Courant. So he enlisted about two years before his death.

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

From the town of Weslaco near the Texas-Mexico border, Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Noe Hernandez had spent eight years in the Navy, and in that time impressed his family with photos from Italy and the Pacific Ocean.

“We all came from poverty in Guatemala,” Aly Hernandez-Singer told CBS 11. “He was the one who made it.”

Now the photos he’d sent home were how his cousin remembered him, while his wife mourned him with their young son.

Carlos Victor Sibayan grew up with a military father who was often absent, deployed on a ship somewhere, his mother told NBC 7.

So Sibayan had assumed a patriarch’s role as a child, and helped raise his younger siblings outside San Diego.

“One thing that my son always told me is he has my back,” Carmen Sibayan told the station.

He was still a teenager in 2013, when he followed his father’s example and enlisted. During the three years he’d spent on board the Fitzgerald, his mother said, his father had retired from the military and come home.

Her son, a fire controlman, had been set to leave the ship and join them back in California in less than a month, she said. Then came the crash.

Photos of Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald after collision with container ship

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald, damaged by colliding with a Philippine-flagged merchant vessel, is towed by a tugboat upon its arrival at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, Japan June 17, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai (Toru Hanai/Reuters)

“We just borrow this time from God,” the mother said. “So now he has to go back.”

The final victim from the wreck in Japan, Yeoman 3rd Class Shingo Douglass, also grew up in the country.

The son of a Marine stationed in Okinawa in the late 2000s, Stars and Stripes reported, he was remembered as the class clown at a U.S. military-run high school.

Douglass’s family moved to California before he graduated from high school in 2010, the San Diego Union Tribune reported. Four years later, he enlisted in the Navy and soon after returned to Japan.

His early duties on the Fitzgerald were menial — sanding, painting, raising and lowering the rafts, according to a Navy news release quoted by the paper. But Douglass told the Navy he was proud of his work and was excited to be in the military.

Service was important to the family, retired Master Sgt. Stephen Douglass told the Union-Tribune, shortly after his son’s death.

“My mind’s going a mile a minute,” he said. “We’re still in sort of a state of shock.”

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