The Navy Declines to Respond

The USS Fitzgerald, damaged by the collision with a Philippine cargo ship, is anchored at Yokosuka Naval Base on June 18, 2017. (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images )

An under-trained, over-worked skeleton crew. Failed certifications, failed electrical systems. Primary navigation running on Windows 2000. Radar tool that fails at the most basic function of radar and can’t automatically track other ships: “[t]o keep the screen updated, a sailor had to punch a button a thousand times an hour.” ProPublica‘s comprehensive investigation into USS Fitzgerald’s collision with a cargo ship in the South China Sea, by T. Christian Miller, Megan Rose, and Robert Faturechi, reveals the long chain of poor decisions and pressures that led to seven deaths and forced sailors to make truly horrifying decisions:

Vaughan and Tapia waited until they were alone at the bottom of the ladder. When the water reached their necks, they, too, climbed out the 29-inch-wide escape hatch. Safe, they peered back down the hole. In the 90 seconds since the crash, the water had almost reached the top of Berthing 2.

Now they faced a choice. Naval training demanded that they seal the escape hatch to prevent water from flooding the rest of the ship. But they knew that bolting it down would consign any sailors still alive to death.

Vaughan and Tapia hesitated. They agreed to wait a few seconds more for survivors. Tapia leaned down into the vanishing inches of air left in Berthing 2.

“Come to the sound of my voice,” he shouted.

The Fitzgerald had been steaming on a secret mission to the South China Sea when it was smashed by a cargo ship more than three times its size.

The 30,000-ton MV ACX Crystal gouged an opening bigger than a semitruck in the starboard side of the destroyer. The force of the collision was so great that it sent the 8,261-ton warship spinning on a 360-degree rotation through the Pacific.

On the ship’s bridge, a crewman activated two emergency lights high on the ship’s mast, one on top of the other: The Fitzgerald, it signaled, was red over red — no longer under command.

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