USS Fitzgerald, ACX Crystal collision investigators reach verdict

Damages on the guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald at a port in Yokosuka, southwest of Tokyo on June 18, 2017. Credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

An investigation conducted by the Japan Transport Safety Board into why USS Fitzgerald collided with the container ship ACX Crystal on 17 June 2017 has confirmed the US destroyer lookouts’ failure to follow protocol as the cause of the fatal accident.

The guided missile destroyer crashed into the Philippine-flagged container ship in the Pacific Ocean approximately 148 km southwest of Tokyo, Japan. The collision happened while USS Fitzgerald was turning to starboard. As a result, the bow of the container ship pierced a hole in the amidships of the starboard side of the destroyer below the water line causing water to flood into the ship resulting in significant damage to electrical systems.

The bodies of the seven dead crew members were recovered from the flooded berthing compartments of the ship and three other US Navy sailors, including the commanding officer Commander Bryce Benson, were injured.

Negligent homicide charges were dropped against the captain of the USS Fitzgerald in April.

The Japan Transport Safety Board’s investigation report confirmed that distraction and incomplete radar information aboard the US Navy vessel was the cause of the collision. According to the investigation report, at the time of the accident, three officers on USS Fitzgerald were monitoring the radar and conducting lookout only by eyesight.

The report delivers further insight into how the watch team on USS Fitzgerald confirmed the presence of ACX Crystal at about 01:20. However, crew maintained the vessel’s course and speed because they were paying attention to another approaching vessel in the vicinity.

Daylight signalling lamps were used by the crew of the ACX Crystal to alert the USS Fitzgerald while keeping the vessel on course and at speed, but investigators ruled that USS Fitzgerald did not recognise those signals or try to avoid the container ship. Additionally, because of an insufficient adjustment of its radar system, it became difficult for USS Fitzgerald crew to confirm the presence of vessels within 3 to 5 km on its monitor.

In compiling the report, Japanese authorities were not allowed to directly interview any crew members of the US Navy ship. Instead, the Japan Transport Safety Board could only interview crew members from the Filipino container ship. They also compiled the investigative report based on the US Navy report on the collision issued in November 2017, and information from the US Coast Guard, which was entrusted to probe the accident by the US Navy and the US National Transportation Safety Board.