2 Ex-Naval Commanders Face Criminal Charges In 2 Deadly Collisions

Jan 17, 2018
Originally published on January 17, 2018 9:02 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn now to some news related to a pair of deadly U.S. Navy crashes last summer. One involved a U.S. warship that collided with a commercial ship off the coast of Japan. The other involved a U.S. warship hitting an oil tanker near Singapore. Now we know the two commanding officers could face charges including negligent homicide. We are joined now by NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman for more on this. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: Who exactly is being charged in these cases?

BOWMAN: Well, in the case of the Fitzgerald, it's the commanding officer Bryce Benson along with three junior officers, and they face a number of charges including dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel and negligent homicide in this June 17 incident, led to the deaths of seven sailors off Japan.

MARTIN: Off Japan. That's the one off Japan. OK.

BOWMAN: And then we have with the McCain, it's the Commander Alfredo Sanchez. He's facing similar charges of dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel and also negligent homicide. This was on August 21. Ten sailors were killed in that accident.

MARTIN: Wow. That was the one near Singapore. All right. So both deadly accidents. Let's take these one by one. What happened in the first incident? What exactly went wrong?

BOWMAN: Well, with the Fitzgerald, one officer I spoke with who has a lot of experience said this was a breakdown in ship driving 101. He said first of all the officers aboard the Fitzgerald misjudged the distance between their ship and the cargo ship which they ran into, and also they didn't contact the captain of the ship when they were clearly in trouble. And also, remarkably, Rachel, they said these officers lacked the basic knowledge of radar and the fundamental rules of the nautical road. It's remarkable.

And in the case of the McCain, this is even more stunning. There was confusion about who was actually driving the ship and who was operating the engines. There was sort of split duty here. And as a result, one of the engines was going faster than the other and the ship actually turned into a cargo ship. And, again, that led to the deaths of 10 sailors.

MARTIN: I mean, this has got to be a moment of severe reckoning for the Navy. What are they doing in this moment to make sure this never happens again?

BOWMAN: Well, the top Naval officer Admiral John Richardson met with reporters last fall. We were pressing him on this. Can the Navy drive its own ships?

MARTIN: Right.

BOWMAN: Why don't they have the basic knowledge of seamanship here? And he said, well, we're sending out review teams out to the fleet to make sure they have the basic knowledge of navigation, of ship driving. And, Rachel, Admiral Richardson's going to appear tomorrow before the House Armed Services Committee, and he's going to get a lot of serious questions about whether the Navy can actually drive its ships.

MARTIN: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.