The Navy is examining legal cases against service members it has accused of negligence in the deadly collisions of two destroyers this year, even after it has completed investigations into what happened in each case, the service’s top admiral said Thursday.
Adm. John M. Richardson, chief of naval operations, said at a Pentagon news conference that he has assigned Adm. James “Frank” Caldwell Jr. to serve as a consolidated disposition authority for legal cases related to the collisions of both the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain. The term defines a senior officer who oversees cases that can be both criminal and administrative in nature.
Richardson, asked whether there was negligence involved in the mishaps, indicated that there was, by “several people.”
He added: “I mean, we found that the commanding officers were at fault, the executive officers were at fault. There were watch-standers on the ships. And we’ve been pretty clear about identifying where there was fault and taking appropriate accountability actions.”
Caldwell’s review is not complete, but Richardson’s comments raise the possibility that the service could file criminal charges against some of the service members aboard the vessels. A report released by the service Wednesday attributed the Fitzgerald disaster to watch teams disregarding established safety precautions, and the McCain catastrophe to confusion over how to steer the vessel.
The Fitzgerald collided with the MV ACX Crystal, a Philippine-flagged container ship, off the coast of Japan on June 17, killing seven sailors. Ten sailors died aboard the McCain on Aug. 21 after a crash off the coast of Singapore with the Alnic MC, a much larger oil tanker.
The Navy has moved to discipline about a dozen people who were aboard the Fitzgerald during the collision, including removing its commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, and his second-in-command, Cmdr. Sean Babbitt. The ship’s top enlisted sailor, Chief Brice A. Baldwin, also was removed from his job in August.
The Fitzgerald investigation particularly faulted a more junior officer who was serving as the officer of the deck at the time and was responsible for navigation. The Navy found that the officer exhibited poor seamanship and failed to maneuver the Fitzgerald as required, sound a danger signal and contact the Crystal by radio before the collision.
The Navy released a report Thursday detailing a broader review of its activities and seamanship in the Pacific after the two disasters. It also stated that another collision — one involving the guided missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain on May 7 — occurred after the ship turned in front of a South Korean fishing vessel without realizing the risk of collision.