The top two officers and the top enlisted sailor who were aboard the destroyer USS Fitzgerald are among about a dozen sailors who will face discipline following an early-morning collision June 17 that killed seven crew members, a senior Navy officer said Thursday.
Adm. William F. Moran, the vice chief of naval operations, told reporters at the Pentagon that the majority of the punishments will be delivered Friday in Yokosuka, Japan, where the ship is. One sailor received an undisclosed administrative punishment Thursday. Moran declined to describe what occurred in the moments before the collision, saying that remains under investigation.
The discipline will include probable career-ending actions against Cmdr. Bryce Benson, the ship’s captain at the time, and his second-in-command, Cmdr. Sean Babbitt, Moran said. They and the senior enlisted sailor for the ship, Command Master Chief Brice A. Baldwin, will be removed as leaders of the ship permanently, Moran said.
The admiral said that sailors who were on watch in the ship’s bridge — its nerve center — also are among those who will be disciplined. Neither Benson nor Babbitt was in the bridge at the time of the collision, in which the 505-foot destroyer was struck off the coast of Japan by a much heavier container ship, the Philippine-flagged MV ACX Crystal.
“Clearly at some point, the bridge team lost situational awareness,” Moran said.
The ongoing investigation is determining whether the Fitzgerald’s crew was entirely to blame for the disaster, but Moran said the senior officer overseeing the probe, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, has collected more than 3,000 pages of information and has reviewed enough information to take initial disciplinary actions. It is not yet clear whether any sailor will face a court-martial trial.
The 29,000-ton container ship’s bulbous nose ripped a 13-foot-by-17-foot hole in the starboard side of the 9,000-ton Fitzgerald about 1:20 a.m., flooding one compartment where 35 sailors were inside in less than a minute, Moran said. The ensuing flooding left disoriented sailors scrambling for their lives amid a soupy mix of personal items, electronics and mattresses, and some of the survivors were forced to seal a door with other sailors still inside in an effort to prevent the ship from sinking.
“It is somewhat amazing that we didn’t lose far more,” Moran said. “By the time that the last two sailors reached the ladder-way up to the scuttle and out of that compartment was about 90 seconds, and by that time the water was up to their neck and quickly flooding the compartment.”
Documents released by the Navy on Thursday describe the chaos as sailors, mostly sleeping, awoke to a crash and realized their lives were in danger. Some began yelling “Water on deck!” and “Get out!,” the documents said. At least one sailor was pulled from his bed into the water before he awoke, and another was knocked out of his bed by rushing water. The majority of the sailors who eventually died slept closest to the incoming rushing water.
The last sailor to be pulled from the flooding compartment of the ship was in the bathroom when the collision occurred, and knocked off his feet. Lockers floated past him, and he scrambled across them toward the main room, where he was pinned between lockers and the ceiling and eventually pulled himself free by reaching for a pipe, the documents said.
“He made his way to the only light he could see, which was coming from the port-side watertight scuttle,” the documents said. “He was swimming toward the watertight scuttle when he was pulled from the water, red-faced and with bloodshot eyes. He reported that when taking his final breath before being saved, he was already submerged and breathed in water.”
Benson’s stateroom also was flattened by the collision, injuring him and leaving him incapacitated. He was eventually medically evacuated from the Fitzgerald by a Japanese helicopter.
The sailors killed included Gunner’s Mate Seaman Dakota Kyle Rigsby, 19; Yeoman 3rd Class Shingo Alexander Douglass, 25; Sonar Technician 3rd Class Ngoc T. Truong Huynh, 25; Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Noe Hernandez, 26; Fire Controlman 2nd Class Carlos Victor Ganzon Sibayan, 23; Personnel Specialist 1st Class Xavier Alec Martin, 24, and Firecontrolman 1st Class Gary Leo Rehm Jr., 37.