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On Course for Certain Disaster

In this Aug. 21, 2017, file photo, damage is visible as the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain steers towards Changi naval base in Singapore following a collision with the merchant vessel Alnic MC. A number of sailors are missing. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton/U.S. Navy photo via AP, File)

Nobody on the 8,300 ton destroyer USS John S. McCain — not even the captain — really understood how to use the new touch-screen steering system the navy installed in a bid to reduce the number of sailors required to safely guide the ship. As T. Christian Miller, Robert Faturechi, Megan Rose, and Agnes Chang report at ProPublica, the system was fraught with “false alarms” and problems, to the point where engineers called the system, which regularly encountered “multiple and cascading failures,” unstable. Then, the navy blamed Captain Sanchez and the sailors steering the ship for the accident in which 10 sailors died.

In August 2017, Sanchez and his crew steered the ship toward a naval base in Singapore, where technicians were waiting. The navigation system had indicated more than 60 “major steering faults” during the month.

“We were going to have the programmers,” Sanchez said, “give the system a full, a full check, a full clean bill of health.”

The McCain never reached its destination.

In the early hours of Aug. 21, 2017, the McCain was 20 miles from Singapore, navigating one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Sanchez was on the bridge to assist in the complex maneuvers ahead. He ordered Bordeaux to take over steering the warship while another sailor controlled its speed. The idea was to avoid distractions by having each man focus on a single task in the heavy maritime traffic.

To check that he had control, Bordeaux tugged the ship’s wheel slightly to the left. The McCain did not alter its course. Bordeaux rotated it slightly to starboard. Again, the McCain maintained its track. Bordeaux suddenly realized that the McCain was steaming uncontrolled toward the cargo ships sailing through the Singapore Strait.

“Loss of steering,” he called out.

The McCain began turning mysteriously to the left, slowly at first, and then faster. The ship drew closer and closer to the vessels plying the strait.

As Bordeaux remained glued to the screen before him, there was quiet in the dark of the bridge as sailors darted around, staring at gauges, flipping buttons, trying in one way or another to figure out what was happening. Sanchez’s eyes flew across the ship’s banks of screens in his own desperate attempt to avert disaster.

Three minutes and 19 seconds after Bordeaux’s cry, the McCain collided violently with a 30,000-ton Liberian-flagged oil tanker. Ten Navy sailors were killed and scores more were injured. It was the Navy’s worst accident at sea in 40 years.

Immediate responsibility, the Navy ruled, rested with Sanchez, his officers and senior sailors. They had been lax, even complacent, in their training of the sailors steering the ship. Sanchez had made a critical error in not adding more sailors to stand watch as the McCain navigated the treacherous strait. Sanchez was charged with homicide. A chief petty officer, responsible for training the sailors to use the navigation system, was charged with dereliction of duty. The chief petty officer had himself received less than an hour of instruction.

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