For the last day, I have been following the tragic events from Japan involving the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) off the coast of Japan. Sadly, 7 sailors are dead following a collision between the USS Fitzgerald and a merchant ship. From all the details that have been made public, it seems that the accident occurred at 0230 local time, in the middle of the night and the sailors who lost their lives may have been sleeping at the time. Judging from the picture of the Fitzgerald that was taken as she was arriving back in port. It is very likely that some on the berthing compartments that might be below the waterline might have been directly hit. I never served on a DDG ship such as the Fitzgerald, so I am not sure of the layout of the interior of the ship, but I am familiar with the Navy since I served myself.
I feel so sorry for those sailors who lost their lives due to an accident. A Navy vessel is an incredibly complex piece of engineering, and when something like this happens there will be an investigation regarding the events leading up to the collision. Ships do not operate without being aware of their surroundings, especially at night. This means that there will be a trail of evidence to identify exactly what happened that night. The Navy will find the cause of this but it may never be made public. Careers will be ruined, but that is nothing compared to the lives that have been lost. From what I have read, those 7 sailors drowned when the compartments that they were in were flooded. While every effort would have been made to reach those sailors and to save them, at a point the ship itself must be saved and compartments that are damaged must be sealed off. For those who have never served, think of the Titanic, where there were no completely watertight compartments throughout the ship and the water continued to rush in. Exactly how those sailors died isn’t clear. It is possible, and extremely disturbing to think, that they may have been asleep and if they weren’t injured in the collision that they were drowned.
I have some experience with Navy vessels that are involved in collisions at sea. Over 20 years ago, I was serving on USS Leyte Gulf (CG-55) when there was a collision in the middle of the night with another navy vessel, the USS Theodore Roosevelt. I found an old picture online and included it. As you can tell from the picture, we were extremely fortunate that the collision was at the bow of the ship (the front) and not along the side, as with the Fitzgerald. I still remember that immediately before the impact that the ship took a sudden and violent turn as one of the Boatswains Mates swung the wheel hard over to bring the bow of the ship in line for the unavoidable collision. This is the reason that the middle of our ship was not struck, and that is what saved lives. This is the thing that saved lives that night. I was awake and on watch when the collision occurred and I remember grabbing onto the nearest piece of equipment that was mounted to the deck to avoid being thrown around like a rag doll. The only way I can describe the feeling is that it must have been the same as being in a car that has been hit by a train. You have no choice but to wait for the impact and the momentum to stop before you can really respond.
As you can see from this old picture, the bow (nose) of the Leyte Gulf was smashed, fortunately the quick action by the Boatswains Mate’s decision to turn the wheel hard placed the bow at the point of impact from the oncoming USS Roosevelt (pictured in the background). If you can picture in your head, the area where several sailors are standing on Leyte Gulf and have the crane behind them would be above some of the berthing compartments where people were sleeping that night. This was the margin between the accident that I survived in which there were no casualties, and the tragic events on the Fitzgerald.
The accidents involving the Fitzgerald and the Leyte Gulf were both avoidable. They should never have happened. But that is like saying that with all the experience and safety equipment available in cars today that no one should ever die while traveling in one. Accidents do happen, and they need to be fully investigated to teach others what to be cautious of in the future. It is sad that there are 7 fallen shipmates who are gone forever because of this accident.
FAIR WINDS AND FOLLOWING SEAS