Sailors ceremonially fold seven American flags during a June 27, 2017 memorial ceremony at Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Japan, for seven sailors assigned to USS Fitzgerald who were killed in a collision at sea. (RAYMOND D. DIAZ III/U.S. NAVY)
Sailors ceremonially fold seven American flags during a June 27, 2017 memorial ceremony at Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Japan, for seven sailors assigned to USS Fitzgerald who were killed in a collision at sea. (RAYMOND D. DIAZ III/U.S. NAVY)

USS Fitzgerald: Death and valor on a warship doomed by its own Navy

by T. Christian Miller, Megan Rose and Robert Faturechi
ProPublica

The USS 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.

The collision of the vessels was the Navy’s worst accident at sea in four decades. Seven sailors drowned. Scores were physically and psychologically wounded. Two months later, a second destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, broke that grim mark when it collided with another cargo vessel, leaving 10 more sailors dead.

The successive incidents raised an unavoidable question: How could two $1.8 billion Navy destroyers, protected by one of the most advanced defense systems on the planet, fail to detect oncoming cargo ships broadcasting their locations to a worldwide navigational network?

The failures of basic seamanship deeply embarrassed the Navy. Both warships belonged to the vaunted 7th Fleet — the most powerful armada in the world and one of the most important commands in the defense of the United States from nuclear attack.

ProPublica reconstructed the Fitzgerald’s journey, relying on more than 13,000 pages of confidential Navy investigative records, public reports, and interviews with scores of Fitzgerald crew members, current and former senior Navy officers, and maritime experts.

The review revealed neglect by Navy leadership, serious mistakes by officers — and extraordinary acts of valor and endurance by the crew.

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