It’s the dead of night, and the USS Fitzgerald is on a secret mission to the South China Sea.
The sailors on the $1.8 billion destroyer are young, tired and poorly trained.
Disaster strikes at 1:30:34 a.m.
Fight the Ship
Death and valor on a warship doomed by its own Navy.
By T. Christian Miller, Megan Rose and Robert Faturechi
Design by Xaquín G.V.
February 6, 2019
A little after 1:30 a.m. on June 17, 2017, Alexander Vaughan tumbled from his bunk onto the floor of his sleeping quarters on board the Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald. The shock of cold, salty water snapped him awake. He struggled to his feet and felt a torrent rushing past his thighs.
Around him, sailors were screaming. “Water on deck. Water on deck!” Vaughan fumbled for his black plastic glasses and strained to see through the darkness of the windowless compartment.
Underneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean, 12 miles off the coast of Japan, the tidy world of Berthing 2 had come undone. Cramped bunk beds that sailors called coffin racks tilted at crazy angles. Beige metal footlockers bobbed through the water. Shoes, clothes, mattresses, even an exercise bicycle careered in the murk, blocking the narrow passageways of the sleeping compartment.
In the dim light of emergency lanterns, Vaughan glimpsed men leaping from their beds. Others fought through the flotsam to reach the exit ladder next to Vaughan’s bunk on the port side of the ship. Tens of thousands of gallons of seawater were flooding into the compartment from a gash that had ripped through the Fitzgerald’s steel hull like it was wrapping paper.
As a petty officer first class, these were his sailors, and in those first foggy seconds Vaughan realized they were in danger of drowning.
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At 6 feet, 1 inch and 230 pounds, Vaughan grabbed a nearby sailor by the T-shirt and hurled him toward the ladder that led to the deck above. He yanked another, then another.
Vaughan’s leg had been fractured in three places. He did not even feel it.
“Get out, get out,” he shouted as men surged toward him through the rising water.
Berthing 2, just below the waterline and barely bigger than a 1,200-square-foot apartment, was home to 35 sailors. They were enlisted men, most in their 20s and 30s, many new to the Navy. They came from small towns like Palmyra, Virginia, and big cities like Houston. They were white, black, Latino, Asian. On the Fitzgerald, they worked as gunners’ mates, sonar experts, cafeteria workers and administrative assistants.
Seaman Dakota Rigsby, 19, was newly engaged. Sonar Technician Rod Felderman, 28, was expecting the birth of his first child. Gary Rehm Jr., 37, a petty officer first class, was the oldest sailor in the compartment, a mentor to younger crew members.
As the water rose past their ankles, their waists, their chests, the men fought their way to the port side ladder and waited, shivering in the swirling debris, for their chance to escape.
Shouting over a crescendo of seawater, Vaughan and his bunkmate, Joshua Tapia, a weapons specialist, worked side by side. They stationed themselves at the bottom of the ladder, grabbing the sailors and pushing them, one by one, up the steps. At the top, the men shot out the small opening, as the rising water forced the remaining air from the compartment.
Suddenly, the ship lurched to the right, knocking sailors from their feet. Some slipped beneath the surface. Others disappeared into the darkness of a common bathroom, carried by the force of water rushing to fill every available space.
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.
The Fitzgerald steamed south at 20 knots. The larger Crystal headed east by northeast at 18 knots. At the last minute, the destroyer tried to dodge. It revved its engines to full power and turned sharply left.
The impact knocked the 8,261-ton Fitzgerald 30 degrees off course in eight seconds.
The warship tilted 3 degrees starboard as its rudders swung and its speed jumped to 22 knots.
At 1:30:34 a.m., the Crystal slammed into the Fitzgerald. The destroyer whipsawed 14 degrees in the other direction.
As hundreds of tons of water flooded into the warship, it settled into a 7-degree list.
For an instant, the Crystal and the Fitzgerald locked together, traveling side by side.
When the Crystal broke free, it swung 125 degrees to the right. The cargo ship was now on a collision course with the Maersk Evora — a massive, 142,000-ton cargo ship. The Crystal began evasive maneuvers.
The Fitzgerald continued spinning, completing a 360-degree rotation over the next five minutes.
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.
The Fitzgerald’s captain selected an untested team to steer the ship at night. He ordered the crew to speed through shipping lanes filled with cargo ships and fishing vessels to free up time to train his sailors the next day. At the time of the collision, he was asleep in his cabin.
The 26-year-old officer of the deck, who was in charge of the destroyer at the time of the crash, had navigated the route only once before in daylight. In a panic, she ordered the Fitzgerald to turn directly into the path of the Crystal.
The Fitzgerald’s crew was exhausted and undertrained. The inexperience showed in a series of near misses in the weeks before the crash, when the destroyer maneuvered dangerously close to vessels on at least three occasions.
The warship’s state of readiness was in question. The Navy required destroyers to pass 22 certification tests to prove themselves seaworthy and battle-ready before sailing. The Fitzgerald had passed just seven of these tests. It was not even qualified to conduct its chief mission, anti-ballistic missile defense.
A sailor’s mistake sparked a fire causing the electrical system to fail and a shipwide blackout a week before the mission resulting in the crash. The ship’s email system, for both classified and non-classified material, failed repeatedly. Officers used Gmail instead.
Its radars were in questionable shape, and it’s not clear the crew knew how to operate them. One could not be made to automatically track nearby ships. To keep the screen updated, a sailor had to punch a button a thousand times an hour. The ship’s primary navigation system was run by 17-year-old software.
The Navy declined to directly answer ProPublica’s questions about its findings. Instead, a spokesman cited previous reports that the Navy published during its own months-long review of the collisions.
The Navy inquiries determined that there had been widespread problems with leaders regarding shortfalls in training, manning and equipment in the 7th Fleet. The Navy fired admirals, captains and commanders, punished sailors and criminally prosecuted officers for neglecting their duties.
Adm. John Richardson, head of the Navy, called the two collisions “avoidable tragedies.” The ships’ commanders and their superiors, he said in a written statement to ProPublica, were responsible for the results.
“The tragedies of USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain reminded us that all commanders, from the unit level to the fleet commander, must constantly assess and manage risks and opportunities in a very complex and dynamic environment,” Richardson said. “But at the end of the day, our commanders make decisions and our sailors execute and there is an outcome — a result of that decision. The commander ‘owns’ that outcome.”
Sidelined during years of land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Navy is now strategically central to containing North Korea’s nuclear threat, China’s expansionist aims and a newly aggressive Russia.
Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin was commander of the 7th Fleet at the time of the collisions. A Naval aviator who fought in the Balkans and Iraq, he made repeated pleas to his superiors for more men, more ships, more time to train. He was ignored, then fired.
More than 18 months later, Aucoin believes that the Navy has yet to disclose the full story of the disasters. Navy leaders, he said in his first extended interview, have not taken accountability for their role in undermining America’s sea fighting ability.
“I just want the truth to come out,” Aucoin said.
In the end, the Fitzgerald’s crew fought to keep the ship from sinking. They worked in the dark, without power, without steering, without communications.
A young officer scribbled algebraic equations in a notebook to figure out how to right the listing vessel. The crew bailed out the ship with buckets after pumps failed. As the Fitzgerald struggled to return to port, its navigational displays failed and backup batteries ran out. The ship’s navigator used a handheld commercial GPS unit and paper charts to guide the ship home.
At the top of the flooded berthing compartment, just seconds after Tapia’s shout, a hand thrust up through the scuttle opening. It was Jackson Schrimsher, a weapons specialist from Alabama. Vaughan reached down and pulled him up.
Schrimsher had gotten trapped in his top bunk by floating furniture that blocked the aisle. He climbed over to another bunk and jumped down. A wall of water rushed toward him, and a locker toppled onto him. Looking up, he saw the light coming from the open scuttle and fought his way toward it.
Schrimsher had recently become certified as a master helmsman, specially trained to maneuver the ship during complicated operations. With the Fitzgerald in distress, his skills were needed. He raced off for the ship’s bridge, clad only in a drenched T-shirt and shorts heavy with seawater.
Vaughan and Tapia took one last look at each other. It was time to seal the hatch.
Chapter 1. The Commander’s Quarters
“Fuck Your Boots, Captain, Grab My Hand.”
At impact, the Crystal’s prow punched into another sleeping compartment, this one occupied by a single man: Cmdr. Bryce Benson, the 40-year-old captain of the Fitzgerald.
Benson’s cabin lay high above the surface of the ocean, four decks above his sailors in Berthing 2. The Crystal had pierced the Fitzgerald’s hull right at the foot of Benson’s bed. It crushed together the bedroom and office of his stateroom like a wad of tinfoil.
The collision jolted Benson awake. Metal ductwork had fallen on him. He was bleeding from the head. He tried to get up from his bed but could not. He was trapped, buried amid a tangle of steel and wires. He clutched the quilt his wife had sewn him, its blue and white squares forming the image of a warship.
The cabin was cold and dark. He felt air rush past him. With a shock, Benson realized he was staring at the Pacific. The tear in his cabin’s wall had left Benson with a 140-degree view of dark water and dark sky. He could make out lights from the distant shore of Japan.
He suspected the ship had been hit. He could hear the shouts and groans of his sailors.
Denís Galocha, special to ProPublica
The captains of Navy warships are uniquely accountable in the modern American military. They have “absolute responsibility” for their vessels and face absolute blame when something goes wrong — whether they are asleep or even on board. In the case of a collision, no matter how minor, the consequences are usually severe: The captain is relieved of command.
The outcome is common enough that captains joke with the young officers steering their ships. “In case anything goes wrong, call me so that I can see the end of my career.”
Benson was determined not to be that captain. Just 20 hours earlier, he had set sail from the Fitzgerald’s home port in Yokosuka, Japan, after receiving last-minute orders to head for the South China Sea. Benson had ordered all sailors to report to the Fitzgerald at 6 a.m. to get an early start so he could squeeze in some training.
The Fitzgerald didn’t wrap up the long day of drills until 11 p.m. The ship was moving through a strait between Japan’s Izu Peninsula and Oshima Island. It was roughly 20 miles wide and filled with scores of cargo vessels and fishing boats streaming into and out of Tokyo.
Exhausted, Benson made a change to the night orders to guide the sailors who would pilot the Fitzgerald during the dark early morning hours. Normally, Benson directed the officer of the deck to call him if the ship deviated from its planned course by more than 500 yards to avoid traffic. But this night, Benson doubled the number to 1,000 yards, giving the officer more room to maneuver without having to wake him.
At 11:30 p.m., Benson left the bridge to turn in for the night. Captains often insist on remaining on the bridge when maneuvering through traffic at night. Or they sleep in a special cabin on the bridge. They want to monitor their officers closely during less-than-ideal sailing conditions.
Benson judged he was suffering the effects of “fatigue and sleep deprivation.” He needed to rest. He was concerned about the secret part of his mission. The Fitzgerald was going to sail through contested waters off China, which could result in confrontations with Chinese warships.
But Benson’s decisions set up a risky situation: a relatively junior crew run ragged by a long day, loosened restrictions on the officers steering the vessel and a captain not on the bridge.
Now, Benson realized that his worst nightmare had happened. His ship was in danger. And so was the crew. He was wet, chilled and slipping into shock. Benson reached for the phone by his bed and stopped. His brain had failed him. He couldn’t remember the four digits he’d called countless times to reach the bridge.
He fought through the confusion until the numbers came to him at last. He punched the keypad and hoped for an answer from above.
Benson and his sailors belonged to the 7th Fleet, which won fame during the Second World War as “MacArthur’s Navy,” battling across the Pacific under the direction of the American general to retake the Philippines.
Its modern incarnation is based in Yokosuka — the Navy’s largest overseas installation. The historic base lies at the mouth of Tokyo Bay, near where Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived with gunboats in 1853 to force the isolated island nation to trade with the U.S. The 7th Fleet encompasses about 20,000 sailors and some 70 ships and submarines. Its commander is responsible for an area with 36 countries and half the world’s population.
The 7th Fleet is one of the most important strategic commands in the military, and its sailors and ships fight an often shadowy battle against some of America’s greatest geopolitical threats: China, North Korea and Russia.
The fleet’s eight destroyers are key to this fight. Tough, scrappy warships, they are designed to withstand enormous damage and return the same. In the Battle off Samar in the Philippines in 1944, one of history’s greatest naval clashes, seven American destroyers, escorts and aircraft carrier planes managed to fend off a flotilla of 23 Japanese warships, including four battleships.
Some 7th Fleet destroyers, including the Fitzgerald, play an especially important role. They can track and shoot down ballistic missiles, making them almost unique in the nation’s armed forces. No other missile defense can deploy as quickly or cover as wide an area. The system is far from perfect — it frequently misses targets during training exercises. But the half-dozen ballistic missile defense destroyers in the 7th Fleet are the United States’ first line of defense against a North Korean nuclear attack.
From his early days in the Navy, Benson was determined to helm one of these frontline warships.
Benson dedicated himself to a career as a surface warfare officer. SWOs, as they are known, are the backbone of the Navy’s leadership — front-line warriors noted for their extraordinary commitment to success, but also for a competitive, sometimes backbiting culture. “SWOs eat their own” is a common Navy refrain.
At every stage, he impressed his superior officers. Several of his commanders believed he would make admiral. “Make no mistake, THIS GUY IS GOOD,” wrote one officer.
The first ship he captained was the USS Guardian, an aging minesweeper. It was made mostly of wood and was in constant need of repair. He learned to get material any way he could: scavenging equipment, pestering supply clerks and getting his machinists to make custom fittings. Under his watch, the Guardian received the highest rating in its class for combat readiness. “It is obvious he is an absolute ALL-STAR surface warrior,” one superior wrote, “and the exact type of leader we need in COMMAND.”
At 5 feet, 10 inches and 160 pounds, Benson was not physically imposing and had a baby face that emphasized his youth. But he could turn fierce when confronted with a screw-up, fixing a backsliding sailor with a piercing stare, followed by a pointed and personal lesson.
His crew thought highly of him even though, or maybe because, he was tough. They liked how he’d walk the decks to stop and chat with sailors. He loved talking about football, especially his beloved Packers. He drilled his sailors on safety — including evacuation of the ship’s sleeping quarters.
“He was about getting things done. He didn’t accept a lot of excuses,” Travius Caldwell, one of the ship’s chief petty officers, said. “He leads hard.”
On the Fitzgerald’s bridge, the jangle of the phone next to Benson’s empty captain’s chair pierced the chaos. Carlos Clark snatched up the receiver. It was Benson. His voice was shaky and uncertain. What had happened to his ship? He needed to get to the bridge, he said, but he couldn’t. Clark, an enlisted sailor in charge of navigation, had never before heard his captain sound scared.
“I’m trapped,” Benson told him.
Clark grabbed a sledgehammer, a couple of other sailors and raced to the captain’s room, two decks below. One of the men was Christopher Perez, the Fitzgerald’s senior chief petty officer for the ship’s missile and gun systems. Decisive, sometimes headstrong, Perez served as a crucial link between the officers and the enlisted crew in weapons.
Outside Benson’s cabin, the rescue party confronted the first obstacle: The captain’s door, three-eighths-of-an-inch-thick metal, was locked shut. Chief Petty Officer Jared Ogilvie picked up the sledgehammer.
“Get the fuck back,” he shouted.
Bald and broad-shouldered, Ogilvie cracked 30 to 50 blows at the door. Nothing. Next in line was Clark. Then came Ensign Joseph White — 6 feet, 2 inches, a former offensive lineman for the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats. He split open his hand trying to bash in the door. Two more chief petty officers took shots.
Benson’s door bent only slightly.
From his bed, mangled steel just inches from this head, Benson could hear the banging. He was bleeding and soaked from a water pipe that had broken above him and could feel his body temperature dropping.
Trying to calm himself, the voice of his seventh-grade science teacher popped into his head: “Whenever you’re in a sense of panic, just try to slow down because your brain is trying to sort through all the files and it’s going too fast.”
Clark rushed back to the bridge, where he kept a 35-pound kettlebell for exercise. Swinging it high over his head, he smashed it against the door. Everyone ducked. The door cracked.
Perez stepped forward to finish the job. He grabbed White in a bear hug, and the two heaved their combined bulk against the door, pushing it back enough to reveal the captain’s stateroom.
At first, the members of the rescue party thought they were looking at the back wall of Benson’s cabin, at what appeared to be a light bulb hanging down and swinging wildly. Then, they realized that they were staring through a hole at the ocean. The light was the Crystal, hundreds of yards away, steaming away from the crash.
The cabin looked like a junkyard, the captain’s desk pushed against the door, cold water flowing like a waterfall. The room had been compressed and shifted back 20 feet from its original position.
The men could not see Benson because of the dark and the detritus. But they could hear his pleas for help.
“We’re coming for you,” Ogilvie said. “Just keep talking, keep talking.”
Benson had taken command of the Fitzgerald just a month earlier, on May 13, 2017, after a brief ceremony on deck during a stop at a Navy port in Sasebo in southern Japan. He’d made a few remarks then issued his commander’s philosophy to the crew: A simple acrostic — FITZ — meant to inspire the sailors: “Fighting, Integrity, Toughness, Zeal.”
Benson knew intimately the precarious state of his ship and its sailors. He had served as the ship’s second-in-command for a year and a half before taking charge from the outgoing captain, Cmdr. Robert Shu.
Sailors welcomed the change of command. Some felt that Shu had become too hands off after three years in command. He “seemed indecisive, confused about what he wants,” one lieutenant later told investigators. Benson “was a huge positive turn. He gave us focused, clear guidance.” Naval investigators blamed Shu for creating a “culture of complacency” and “longstanding weaknesses” in training and tackling equipment problems that Benson would have to fix.
Benson also worried about the ship’s physical state. The ship had recently spent eight months in Yokosuka’s repair yards, where workers installed a new defensive system, overhauled its turbine shafts and painted it a new coat of Navy gray. But hundreds of repairs, major and minor, remained to be done.
Then there was the crew. In those eight months, nearly 40 percent of the Fitzgerald’s crew had turned over. The Navy replaced them with younger, less-seasoned sailors and officers, leaving the Fitzgerald with the highest percentage of new crew members of any destroyer in the fleet. But naval commanders had skimped even further, cutting into the number of sailors Benson needed to keep the ship running smoothly. The Fitzgerald had around 270 people total — short of the 303 sailors called for by the Navy.
Key positions were vacant, despite repeated requests from the Fitzgerald to Navy higher-ups. The senior enlisted quartermaster position — charged with training inexperienced sailors to steer the ship — had gone unfilled for more than two years. The technician in charge of the ship’s radar was on medical leave, with no replacement. The personnel shortages made it difficult to post watches on both the starboard and port sides of the ship, a once-common Navy practice.
When the ship set sail in February 2017, it was supposed to be for a short training mission for its green crew. Instead, the Navy never allowed the Fitzgerald to return to Yokosuka. North Korea was launching missiles on a regular basis. China was aggressively sending warships to pursue its territorial claims to disputed islands off its coast. Seventh Fleet commanders deployed the Fitzgerald like a pinch hitter, repeatedly assigning it new missions to complete.
The Travels of the USS Fitzgerald
The Fitzgerald was repeatedly dispatched on new missions, postponing opportunities for training and maintenance. Over four months, the ship traveled from Guam, to the South China Sea to anti-ballistic missile patrols off the Korean peninsula.
Lt. Cmdr. Ritarsha Furqan, the ship’s combat officer, worried that the constant pace was not providing enough time for necessary training and repairs.
“We’d find a part, find a body, make do and get underway,” Furqan later testified in a legal proceeding. “Sometimes it felt like it was unsafe or wrong.”
In March, Furqan confronted Shu: “We are not ready,” she told him. Shu, she testified, told her that he had already delivered that message to superiors. The missions would continue.
Benson’s first test of leadership was improving the ship’s state of readiness. In the months at sea after dry dock, the 22-year-old destroyer deteriorated as its regular maintenance was repeatedly pushed back. Benson spent his first week in command as though he were again captain of an aging minesweeper, trying to tackle hundreds of repairs and begging technicians to fly over from the United States for help.
In the midst of the frenzied training and repairs, the ship’s critical email system collapsed. Neither classified nor unclassified material could be sent. Officers were forced to set up Gmail addresses to continue working.
By then, Benson was convinced that the shortage of sailors had become critical. Right before Benson assumed command, Shu had promised leaves to more than a dozen weary crew members. One sailor planned to return to Yokosuka to see his newborn for the first time. Another wanted to attend her mother’s wedding. A third asked to go home to visit his mother, who was dying.
Benson called the sailors into his office, one by one. The Fitzgerald needed to be ready for war with North Korea. There were simply not enough crew members to replace them. He canceled all leaves.
“I need you. The ship needs you,” Benson explained to each sailor individually.
Sailors started referring to the day as “Bloody Tuesday.” Some sailors left Benson’s rooms in tears. Another could barely bring herself to look at the captain for a week. One of the affected sailors was Perez. Benson told him that he could not afford to let him go.
“You’re going to be on watch, and you might save my life,” he told his senior chief. “You might save my life.”
Perez and three other sailors barely paused to consider the dangers. Loose electrical cables dangled from the ceiling. Water spewed from a broken pipe.
Their biggest concern was the massive tear in the cabin wall. They thought Benson was in danger of falling into the ocean. The four held on to one another’s belts as they crept forward in the dark, following the captain’s voice.
Caldwell found Benson lying in his bunk. Showers of sparks from the cables fell like rain between them.
“Captain,” Caldwell said. “Grab my hand.”
“I can’t get into my boots,” Benson told him.
“Fuck your boots, captain,” Caldwell said. “Grab my hand.”
The two men locked arms as the black waters of the Pacific streamed past. The chain of men pulled back, maneuvering Benson out of his bunk and over his desk to the corridor in front of the cabin.
Benson was soaking wet, barefoot, and wearing only a long-sleeved T-shirt and exercise shorts. There was blood streaming down his face. He grabbed the ladder and began climbing.
Sixteen minutes after the collision, at 1:46 a.m., Benson staggered onto the bridge. Adrenaline, fear and anger shot through him. The ship was listing, wheeling in the dark uncontrolled. The electricity was out. The screens were off. Only emergency lanterns and moonlight illuminated the bridge.
Benson found the officer who had been in charge of the ship sobbing.
“Captain, I fucked up,” she told him.
The bridge was in chaos. Both officers and enlisted crew were stunned. Flashlights and cellphone lights danced in the dark, revealing blank, open faces. For sailors used to the constant thrum of a ship moving through water, it was eerily hushed.
Benson strode to his captain’s chair. He needed to rescue the ship. But the instant he sat, he began to slide out. His forearms curled involuntarily toward his body, as though he were lifting an invisible barbell. His hands bent at the wrists and folded down and away from his body.
Ogilvie and White laid him on the floor of the bridge. Benson began to shiver uncontrollably. Ogilvie thought the captain was suffering from hypothermia. He told White to strip off his shirt and lay on Benson to warm him up.
“Right goddamn now,” Ogilvie said. It was the second time in 20 minutes that a lower ranking sailor had issued an expletive-laced order to a superior officer.
White lay chest to chest with Benson to keep him warm while Ogilvie slapped him or rubbed his sternum hard with his knuckles to keep Benson awake. They put boots on his feet.
The captain had suffered a traumatic brain injury. He drifted in and out of consciousness, his lip occasionally quivering before he started crying.
“My brain’s not working the way it’s supposed to work right now, I don’t understand, I don’t understand,” he said at one point.
A senior officer told White to take Benson to the sea cabin, a small room with a bed just behind the bridge. “The crew can’t see him like this,” he said.
In the confines of the sea cabin, Benson would bark orders or ask about the ship’s status. “What are the seas?” he’d ask before passing out again. He started calling his sailors by their first names — something he had never done before. At one point, he noticed a barefoot cafeteria worker named Freddy Peña. “Freddy,” Benson said, “Get your boots on.”
The young culinary specialist turned to the ranking officer standing nearby. Benson wasn’t going anywhere. “Sir, can I wear Captain Benson’s boots?”
It was an astonishing question in the strict hierarchy of a Navy ship, in which the captain reigns supreme and officers live on top both figuratively and literally. When an enlisted cafeteria worker bends over the captain of the ship and asks to claim his boots, it is a sign that the rigid structure of life at sea was being undone by the demands of survival.
The officer looked at the cook. Could he have the captain’s boots?
“Absolutely,” the officer said.
The officer was the ship’s second in command, Cmdr. Sean Babbitt. Tall, gaunt, he had joined the Fitzgerald only months before. He told Benson the ship was flooding. The Fitzgerald was now at war, the enemy the sea.
Benson realized he was no longer in command of himself, nor of his ship. He told Babbitt: “Sean, fight the ship.”
Chapter 2. The Combat Room
“I Got a Ship”
Lt. Natalie Combs was already nearing exhaustion when she reported to the combat information center for her shift the night of the crash. Like many sailors on board, Combs had been up before sunrise.
Benson had appointed Combs as the tactical action officer for the watch. That made her responsible for the operation of the Fitzgerald’s combat information center — the warship’s fighting heart.
The room stretches almost the width of the ship on the main deck and is filled with rows of long desks and dozens of screens. It looks like a combination lecture hall and sports bar — except that it is illuminated by pale blue light, thought to calm sailors charged with the launch of its deadly instruments. “The House of Blue Light,” some in the Navy called it.
All the ship’s major weapons systems can be fired from the center — the missiles, torpedoes, the 5-inch gun. The ship’s multiple sensors pour in data. Radar screens can track planes, ships and submarines from scores of miles away. Real-time information flows from an infrared camera and navigational, weather and geographic equipment.
On the Fitzgerald, the combat room also contained a laptop displaying information from the Automatic Identification System. The AIS is a commercial system used worldwide to identify ships by their name, location and navigational path. That made the laptop an important link in the array of equipment designed to alert the Fitzgerald to nearby dangers. The Fitzgerald didn’t broadcast its position for security reasons. But the AIS allowed it to see civilian vessels.
The high-tech combat center, however, was like so much else about the Fitzgerald — less than it seemed.
As the ship sailed through the strait, an operations specialist named Matthew Stawecki sat in front of a radar known as the SPS-67, one of three radar systems on the Fitzgerald, and the primary radar in use in the combat room. He was charged with helping keep track of ship traffic around the destroyer. To track a ship, a radar operator must “hook” it — or direct an automated system to lock on the target and display its projected path.
The radar was supposed to automatically follow the hooked tracks on the screen. But Fitzgerald sailors had been unable to make the feature work.
To follow the hooked tracks, Stawecki had to repeatedly press a button that refreshed the display on his screen. The workaround made Stawecki look like he was sending a frantic message in Morse code. He would hit the button more than 1,000 times in an hour to keep the images of nearby ships updated. Just before the collision, Stawecki’s screen showed five ships around the Fitzgerald, none of them close by, none of them threats and none of them requiring reporting to the captain.
The SPS-67 had another problem: radars must be tuned to obtain the clearest images. On the Fitzgerald, technicians had covered a button to tune the radar with masking tape because it was broken. From his post, Stawecki could not tune the radar. So the only other thing he saw were false returns — so-called clutter that could result from the radar hitting waves, flocks of birds or any other obstacle at sea. Stawecki would later testify that he saw no ships threatening the Fitzgerald in the crucial half-hour before the collision.
“There was a lot of clutter; I couldn’t see a lot,” said Stawecki, who had not rested during the day. He could remember tracking only a few contacts, all of them far away. “I can’t remember exactly how far, but they were nowhere near us pretty much and, I believe, they were going the opposite direction.”
The Fitzgerald belongs to the Arleigh Burke class of destroyers, named after the admiral who helped win the Second World War and led the Navy during the Eisenhower years. It had beautiful lines — a steeply curving prow, four swept-back smokestacks, a foredeck with a powerful 5-inch gun and a flat aft deck for helicopter landings.
The Fitzgerald is about as long as the Washington Monument, and wider than a four-lane interstate highway, with a main mast soaring 152 feet high above the deck. The four gas turbine engines produce more than 100,000 horsepower, capable of driving it at speeds of greater than 30 knots. That speed — more than 34 miles per hour — placed the Fitzgerald among the fastest warships in the world.
Sleek, fast, strategically critical, the Fitzgerald could often seem closer to a wreck.
Due to their heavy use, destroyers in the 7th Fleet were in constant need of repair. On the Fitzgerald, the list of maintenance jobs ran into the hundreds. Most of them were minor: a request for new coolant for a refrigeration unit, another for a certain type of washer.
But a dozen or so were considered more serious. They included problems with the ship’s primary navigation system. It was the oldest such system among destroyers based in Japan. It was running on Windows 2000, even though other ships had been upgraded. It could not display information from the AIS.
The broken email system had a “major impact” on the ship’s day-to-day operations. Microsoft Outlook did not work. Nor could commanders communicate over a classified email system. The ship’s entire network was suffering. Officers could not access sailors’ work profiles, order parts or even keep track of new repair requests.
Technicians were constantly fixing the SPS-73, the other main navigational radar on the Fitzgerald. Sometimes, the radar would show the destroyer heading the wrong way. At other times, it simply locked up and would have to be shut down. The SPS-73’s antenna was nearing the end of its life, and had been scheduled for replacement in April. But the maintenance had been delayed when the Fitzgerald was assigned to patrol North Korea.
A third radar, used for warfare, was slow to acquire targets, but technicians had installed a temporary fix that became permanent. “Problem known since 2012. Declared hopeless,” read notes attached to the repair report.
Other equipment had been written off, too. The so-called Bright Bridge console was supposed to help the bridge crew by sharing information from the combat room. The console had been scavenged for spare parts, leaving the station unmanned.
When malfunctions occurred, it could take months to fix them. The Fitzgerald skipped or shortened four planned maintenance periods during the spring of 2017 — due to the Navy constantly issuing orders for new missions.
Almost two weeks before the collision, as the Fitzgerald approached its home port of Yokosuka, an engineer accidentally caused a small fire in one of the ship’s switchboards. The Fitzgerald went dark, dead in the water.
The next day, the destroyer limped into Yokosuka harbor. For the sailors aboard, it was the first time home in four months. They did what they could not while on board: They hung out with family, took hot showers alone and slammed down drinks at The Honch, the row of bars outside base. For Benson and his officers, it was another long week attacking the Fitzgerald’s long list of repairs and finding the right sailors to do the ship’s many tasks.
Among its most serious shortcomings, the Fitzgerald lacked certification for providing reliable missile defense. In the best of circumstances, the Fitzgerald had a narrow window of time to take out a ballistic missile. It could target an outgoing missile only before it got too high in the atmosphere. But one officer fretted that a radar operator — reputed to be the best on the ship — was unable to locate and track missiles in the allotted time.
As the watch progressed into the dark early hours of June 17, Combs did not see much to worry her. All the screens in the combat room showed a quiet night on the seas. The big monitors displaying the ships surrounding the Fitzgerald showed none closer than 6,000 yards. An infrared camera operator saw maybe 20 to 30 vessels, including small fishing boats, but none a cause for worry. Combs, who had been through the area a number of times, judged the traffic a “three out of 10.”
The No. 2 on the midwatch was Lt. Irian Woodley, 42, the surface warfare coordinator. Woodley was what the Navy called a mustang — an enlisted sailor who had risen to become a commissioned officer. An experienced sailor, Woodley evoked a mixed reaction. One senior officer thought he was one of the best watch standers on the ship; other sailors thought he was the worst.
Woodley shared Combs’ opinion. He saw what his assistant, Stawecki, saw as he tapped away at his radar station: nothing near or dangerous.
“It appeared that we were pretty much in, you know, like in open water,” he said.
Rainford A. Graham, an operations specialist on duty in the combat room, had also seen nothing on the radar. “You trust what’s in the console,” he said.
Graham’s faith may have been misplaced. Even if the radars had been working properly, it’s not clear the Fitzgerald’s sailors knew how to use them. One junior officer had never been trained on how to use the radars on the Fitzgerald, describing herself as “not highly confident” in their use. Technicians complained of being called to fix radar problems that were actually the result of operator errors. Radars are tricky instruments that need constant adjustments depending on weather and distance.
Aside from radar, however, the Fitzgerald had other systems in place to detect oncoming vessels. Among them was the simple act of talking.
One of Comb’s most important responsibilities was communicating with her counterparts on the bridge. She was a backup set of eyes and ears, making sure that officers on the bridge knew about surrounding ship traffic detected in the combat room. Even the slowest shift was supposed to be punctuated with check-ins. “Why are we not seeing more ships?” is one question a tactical action officer might ask the bridge. Constant communication was needed to ensure that no dangers went overlooked.
Combs wasn’t the best person for that task, in the eyes of some officers on board.
Combs had grown up in a Navy family — her father was a retired admiral who had been one of the Navy’s first black senior officers. During the Second World War, her grandfather belonged to the Montford Point Marines, the Corps’ first black service members.
After nine years in the Navy, most of it in Japan, Combs joined the Fitzgerald just as it prepared to leave dry dock. Her primary job was as the operations officer, or ops, a notoriously busy position that made her responsible for a team of officers and sailors dedicated to intelligence, scheduling and planning.
When she arrived, she had to figure out her new job on her own: “There was no turnover process,” she said. “I was essentially just familiarizing myself with the ship as best as I could.”
Benson and others had worked closely with Combs. Some officers considered her introverted, not the best characteristic for a tactical action officer responsible for communicating with the bridge.
In the 30 minutes before the crash from 1 to 1:30 a.m., Combs never once called the bridge to apprise its officers of the ship’s surroundings — or even to question the odd lack of nearby ships in the crowded corridor. Nor did anybody from the bridge call down.
The long silence violated orders for constant communication between the two stations, even on a night that seemed slow.
“I did not see any contact that caused me alarm in regard to its distance for me,” Combs said.
Although the Fitzgerald radars did not show them, more than two dozen ships surrounded the destroyer, all close enough to track. Three of them, large vessels off the starboard bow, posed a grave danger to the warship. They were closing in. Quickly.
But the ships didn’t appear on the combat room’s key radar, the SPS-67, because neither Combs, nor Woodley, nor anyone else, realized that it had been set to a mode designed to scan the seas at a greater distance. With the SPS-67 button taped over, only specialized technicians could change the tuning from another part of the ship.
The lack of ships on the radar screen created such a false sense of security that Woodley felt comfortable asking Combs permission to leave his station for a bathroom break, which is rare for a shift in the combat room. When he returned at 1:20 a.m., he glanced at his screens. Nothing to concern him.
“I didn’t get any radar, I didn’t pick up anything on the 67,” Woodley said.
Then, at 1:29 a.m., one minute before the collision, Woodley looked up at the laptop with the Automatic Identification System. He noticed a “pop-up” — a ship that he had not seen before. It appeared very close.
Woodley turned to Ashton Cato, a weapons specialist assigned to midwatch. Cato operated a camera with thermal imaging that could see miles away. On some nights, he would watch the crew on faraway ship decks lighting up cigarettes.
Woodley ordered Cato to point the camera in the direction of the approaching ship. As Cato moved the camera, the screen suddenly filled with the image of a fully loaded cargo ship, lit with white lights like a Christmas tree. It was headed straight at the Fitzgerald, a few hundred yards distant.
Cato only managed to get out a few words.
“I got a ship.”
Chapter 3. The Bridge
“The Only Way for Things to Get Better Here Is for Us to Have a Serious Accident or Someone to Die.”
Sarah Coppock, lieutenant junior grade, was the officer of the deck, responsible for the safety and navigation of the ship while Benson slept.
She’d started her day almost 22 hours before and had managed to rest for one hour before taking over on the bridge. She had navigated this route out of Tokyo only once, in daylight. Despite that, Benson, before going to bed, had ordered her to steam ahead at 20 knots.
The speed left Coppock nervous. Steering a massive warship through the ocean at night is an exercise in managed chaos. Imagine driving down a four-lane highway without guardrails, traffic stripes or dividers. It is pitch dark. Other vehicles, ranging in size from mopeds to tractor-trailers, zip around you. None of them have brakes that can stop quickly.
The bridge was the Fitzgerald’s navigation center. Perched high above the main deck toward the front of the ship, the officers and crew in the bridge held a 270-degree view of the ocean through a bank of thick windows.
The main steering console occupied the middle of the room, appearing like a cabinet with a small wheel sticking out of it to control the rudder and levers to control the ship’s speed. Other blocky consoles featured radars, navigation screens and communication tools. There were only two seats in the room, one for the executive officer and a second for the captain — a leather chair, raised up on a small platform. Benson, and only Benson, could occupy the seat. The rest of the dozen or so officers and sailors that jammed into the cramped room literally stood watch, on their feet for four- or five-hour shifts.
The members of the team Coppock was leading that night were all certified for their posts. But they were tired and some were green.
Her No. 2, Lt. Raven Parker, 26, the junior officer of the deck, had helped navigate through the area only once before, and that was in daylight. She, too, had grabbed only an hour of sleep since the start of the day.
Ensign Francis Womack, 25, had worked 19 hours without a break. He was serving as the conning officer. His job was to relay orders from Coppock to the enlisted sailors who operated the ship’s controls at the helm.
Womack was almost as new as an officer can be. Before the Fitzgerald, he had been working at a restaurant and an industrial supply company. He told people that he was “not doing anything to make anyone proud.” He’d joined the Navy to fix that.
He set foot on the Fitzgerald in January, then returned to the United States for additional training. In all, he had spent only about a month’s time at sea. He had only recently passed a test to stand watch. June 16 was the first night he had ever served as conn by himself.
“There’s a lot of things that I didn’t know,” Womack would say later.
Benson, the captain, had spent hours putting the midwatch team together. He had drafted six lineups, his planning hampered by the ship’s broken administrative network. He had tried to balance weaker officers with stronger ones. He regarded Coppock as one of the best officers that he had. She had impressed previous supervisors. One called her the best of his 17 top officers. “PHENOMENAL LEADER,” he wrote.
“I trusted her,” Benson said.
Benson made clear in his orders what to do if the slightest thing went wrong: “CALL ME.”
Trust is the currency of a Navy ship. No high-tech weapons system or advanced technology can replace it. In order for a ship to run well, sailors must have faith in one another. Hence the Navy belief that it’s not the steel that makes the ship, it’s the crew.
Coppock did not trust some of her team that night. She was especially worried about Woodley, who was responsible for watching the radars in the combat room. She didn’t think he could be relied on to aggressively search for ships. Personality conflicts are the norm on a ship where crew members spend months in tight quarters. But they could impede the effectiveness of a watch team.
Still, Coppock, naturally self-assured, took the bridge undeterred. This was the 7th Fleet. That’s just how things were. Its sailors considered themselves the most driven in the Navy. The action was constant, the missions important. They prided themselves on what Navy investigators called a “can-do” attitude. If your ship sailed with too few sailors, or broken parts, it didn’t matter. You made it work.
Coppock directed the Fitzgerald to head south down the coast of Japan, toward open ocean. She set the speed at 20 knots.
Earlier in the year, a rash of accidents and near misses had spooked the sailors of the 7th Fleet. In January, the destroyer USS Antietam had run aground while in Yokosuka’s harbor. Four months later, on May 9, the USS Lake Champlain, a guided-missile cruiser, collided with a South Korean fishing vessel in the Sea of Japan.
The Lake Champlain crash caused Babbitt, Benson’s second-in-command, to issue a bulletin to the ship’s officers. At 6 feet, 5 inches tall, with deep-set eyes, Babbitt was hard to ignore. He demanded vigilance from his sailors.
“CALL FOR HELP, USE THE HORSEPOWER TO MOVE, DO NOT COLLIDE,” Babbitt wrote by hand in a note distributed to officers.
His worry almost instantly proved warranted. But his commands weren’t followed.
On May 10, one night after the Lake Champlain’s mishap, a fishing vessel got close to the Fitzgerald while it was steaming off southern Japan. Coppock was serving as officer of the deck. Her conning officer was Eric Uhden. Like Woodley, he was an experienced sailor who served years at sea as an enlisted man before becoming an officer.
Uhden alerted Coppock to the potential danger. At first, she dismissed his concern. But a moment later, Uhden said that Coppock seemed to realize her miscalculation.
She ordered the Fitzgerald to dodge the fishing vessel by turning sharply left. The Fitzgerald missed the fishing boat by a couple hundred yards.
Uhden memorialized the incident in an understated note scribbled in his private journal: “Fishing vessel got close on watch.” But nobody else knew about it. Coppock never told the captain, as she was supposed to do.
The next night, May 11, as the Fitzgerald steamed through the busy Tsushima Strait outside of Sasebo, another young lieutenant junior grade named Stephany Breau was serving as the officer of the deck. At around 11 p.m., Breau called the ship’s then-captain for help. After he returned to his stateroom, Breau maneuvered safely through traffic for 45 minutes. Then she noticed a commercial fishing vessel sail out from behind another ship.
The Fitzgerald’s radar had not displayed the two ships.
“That ship is really close,” Breau said to another officer. The fishing trawler was only 200 to 300 yards away, an extremely close distance for ships at sea.
Breau immediately ordered an emergency stop, directing all engines back full. The Fitzgerald sounded five short blasts from its whistle to warn the approaching vessel of an imminent crash.
Breau had executed a textbook response to avoid collision. Nonetheless, in a matter of three days, the USS Lake Champlain had crashed at sea and the Fitzgerald had back-to-back near misses. The close calls were significant events and should have been opportunities for critical examination.
On the Fitzgerald, that never happened. No senior officer ever heard about the first near miss. Only a handful of senior leaders were briefed on the second. Many junior officers, who might have benefited from a formal review, did not even know what had occurred.
Uhden confronted Babbitt with the ship’s dysfunction.
“Sir, we have a serious problem on the ship,” Uhden said he told the executive officer. “And the only way for things to get better here is for us to have a serious accident or someone to die.”
Babbitt denied that such a conversation had occurred.
One more incident rattled the ship’s officers. This time, Benson was to blame.
That spring, North Korea had stepped up missile tests. In an interview on Fox Business News, President Donald Trump promised to stop them. “We are sending an armada, very powerful,” Trump said.
In May, the aircraft carriers the USS Carl Vinson and the USS Ronald Reagan steamed into the Sea of Japan, the first time two carriers had done so in decades. Benson got orders to join the armada. He would have to abandon the repairs he had planned to make and sail out with a crew that had never trained to sail with a carrier strike group, a complicated operation involving a dozen ships and thousands of sailors.
Benson could have taken the rare step of refusing the order, though he risked being fired by his superiors. But he believed his crew and his ship could do the job. On June 1, the Fitzgerald joined almost a dozen other warships to sail with the Vinson and Reagan.
The stirring image of steel and gun was just a show to warn Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader. Normally, the ships in a carrier strike group do not cluster during operations — they are spread out over miles of sea. But even a moment intended as a display of Navy might almost ended in embarrassment.
The Fitzgerald sailed with two aircraft carriers and their escorts in the Sea of Japan, a demonstration of strength aimed at North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The Fitzgerald had never sailed in such a formation before, and left port without completing needed repairs.
During maneuvers, Benson ordered the Fitzgerald to turn slightly to catch up with another ship in the armada. Uhden, who was the conning officer, thought they were getting too close. Benson leaned close and kicked Uhden in the back of the heel. “Make the turn,” he told him. Coppock, also on the bridge, thought they might collide. She later told a friend that she had seen her career flash before her eyes, but could do nothing.
Benson had been giving the orders.
From the bridge, Coppock could see 12 miles across the ocean to distant lights glimmering in cities along Japan’s coast. The moon had risen, casting a river of light across the Pacific. The temperature was around 65 degrees. The waves were cresting 1 to 3 feet.
Coppock glanced up at the SPS-73 radar screen in front of the darkened bridge. She noticed a cargo ship approaching the Fitzgerald from about 12 miles away. The radar indicated it would pass behind the Fitzgerald, about 1,500 yards to its stern. She began tracking the vessel but did not pay close attention to it.
Much like the radar in the combat room, the bridge radar was not providing a complete picture. In reality, there were three large cargo ships approaching the Fitzgerald, but the SPS-73 never showed more than two of them at the same time.
It remains unclear why the radar did not show an accurate picture of the ships at sea that night. One explanation is that the three ships were traveling close together. The cargo ship Coppock was tracking was west of the Fitzgerald but parallel to two other ships following roughly the same route. Closest to the Fitzgerald was a Chinese cargo vessel, the Wan Hai 266, slightly smaller than the Crystal. Next was the Crystal, about 1,000 yards past the Wan Hai. Farthest away was the 142,000-ton Maersk Evora, one of the beasts of the ocean at 1,200 feet in length. About two dozen smaller ships, many fishing boats, bobbed around them.
Another possibility is that Coppock may not have ensured that the radar on the bridge was properly adjusted to obtain a finer-grained picture. A post-crash reconstruction showed that Coppock lost sight of one of the ships due to clutter on the “improperly adjusted” SPS-73 screen.
Tokyo harbor is one of the busiest in the world. But the Fitzgerald’s captain wanted to get ahead of schedule to make room for desperately needed training. He ordered a speed of 20 knots, faster than some officers thought safe. As the Fitzgerald headed out, the Crystal was on its way in. When the two ships collided south of the Izu Peninsula, there were about 24 ships and fishing boats within a 10-mile radius — what the Navy called “moderately dense” traffic.
After the crash, the Crystal found itself headed straight for the Maersk Evora. The Crystal pilot then maneuvered a roundabout track to avoid the gigantic cargo vessel. It returned to the scene about an hour later.
Even without the radar, however, Coppock and the bridge team should have been able to see unaided the lights on the masts of the cargo ship she’d identified along with the two others running parallel to it. All three were headed toward the Fitzgerald — though at times, they would have obstructed one another from view.
A video taken just minutes before the accident, for example, clearly shows the Maersk Evora illuminated from 10,000 yards away. The Crystal also had navigation lights running, and it was less than a few thousands yards away at the same time.
But nobody, it turned out, was standing watch on the starboard side of the ship.
In years past, commanders traditionally posted lookouts on the port and starboard sides of the bridge. The lookouts had one job: search the sea for hazards. But Navy cutbacks in personnel prompted Benson and other captains to combine the duties into a single job. “We just don’t have enough bodies, qualified bodies, to have a port and starboard lookout,” said Samuel Williams, a boatswain’s mate first class.
Parker, Coppock’s No. 2 that night, was supposed to walk back and forth between the two sides during the watch, with the rest of the bridge team helping her keep an eye out.
But Parker had walked out onto a small metal deck located off the bridge on the port side of the Fitzgerald just after 1 a.m. She was there with Womack, trying to fit in some training by helping him develop his seaman’s eye, the ability to estimate distance and bearing by sight. Parker had not received a promotion on a previous ship, after its commanding officer thought she had trouble assessing the risk posed by ships in the surrounding ocean.
Over the next 15 to 20 minutes, the pair observed five or six ships. It may have been a good training exercise. But it was poor navigation practice. None of the ships on the Fitzgerald’s port side were a threat.
Coppock had grown up in Willard, Missouri, a town of 5,000 northwest of Springfield. During her sophomore year in high school, she flew to Hawaii with classmates from the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
There, she toured the floating memorial that sits above the wreck of the USS Arizona, sunk during Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Inside, Coppock stared at a white marble wall etched with the names of the 1,177 sailors who died that day.
Coppock knew she wanted to join the Navy.
“I wanted to be part of something larger than myself,” she said.
Coppock graduated from the University of Missouri on a Navy scholarship. Her first ship was the USS Ashland, an amphibious landing craft.
Amphibious landing craft are ungainly vessels, built to ferry troops in hangar-like holds and launch helicopters from their broad decks. Their commanders were used to getting less attention than higher profile aircraft carriers and destroyers. Crews tended to be pugnacious and self-sufficient.
The ship’s rough-and-tumble atmosphere added to the challenges facing Coppock. The Navy can be a tough place for women: Only about a fifth of Navy sailors are female, and misogyny remains an occupational hazard.
But the 5-foot-4-inch Coppock was used to giving what she got in the Ashland’s wardroom, where the ship’s officers gathered to eat and talk. “You could sit there and scream at each other for hours and it was just to get stuff done. We really didn’t care. It wasn’t personal,” she said. “We’d go out and drink afterwards.”
It was a different story on the Fitzgerald.
Coppock stopped dining with her fellow officers in the Fitzgerald’s wardroom. By long Navy tradition, attendance at such meals was considered necessary to forge the esprit de corps needed to run a ship. Not eating with them was akin to snubbing family.
Fellow Fitzgerald sailors noted her absence. To some, Coppock appeared disconnected. Other shipmates went so far as to call her “lazy” or “abrasive and unapproachable.”
Coppock said she stayed away from the officers’ mess because of criticism from fellow junior officers. She blamed their hostility on her singular focus on getting the job done. Mission came first, she said.
“They just kept telling me I was too aggressive, that I needed to ... tone myself down,” she said.
On one thing, however, both supporters and detractors agreed on: She was superb at her full-time job. Coppock was the Fitzgerald’s anti-submarine warfare officer. Sub-hunting was a shadowy game of cat-and-mouse, played between Navy destroyers and potential enemies from China, Russia or North Korea, each sussing out the other’s capabilities.
Coppock had displayed her skills in the weeks after Benson took command. She and her enlisted assistant, Alexander Vaughan, had stayed up almost 48 hours in the successful pursuit of a Chinese submarine off the coast of Japan. The achievement sealed Coppock’s reputation as a hell of a sailor.
It also boosted her self-assurance. She considered herself one of the better officers on the ship.
Arleigh Burke, the admiral who lends his name to the model of ship that the Fitzgerald belonged to, once reflected on what made for the best kinds of officers.
“The difference between a good officer and a poor one,” Burke said, “is about 10 seconds.”
Parker walked across the bridge to check the starboard side of the Fitzgerald. She glanced at a display to check the time. It was 1:20 a.m. As she stepped out onto the bridge wing, she saw lights shining from the bow of an approaching ship off in the distance, about 6 miles away. It was the Crystal. Parker alerted Coppock. Coppock told Parker not to worry — she was tracking the ship. She said it would pass 1,500 yards behind the Fitzgerald.
Parker had her doubts. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to cross us behind,” she said. Parker stepped out to the bridge wing to check again. Suddenly, she noticed something strange. A second set of lights glided out from behind the first.
It was the first time that anyone on the Fitzgerald had realized that two ships were steaming toward the Fitzgerald’s starboard bow. The Chinese cargo ship was indeed going to pass behind the Fitzgerald. But the Crystal, which had slightly altered its course, was heading straight for the destroyer.
“We gotta slow down,” Parker told Coppock.
No, Coppock told her again. “We can’t slow down because it’ll make the situation worse.” Coppock worried that slowing down might bring her into the path of the ship that was supposed to pass behind them.
In such situations, Parker, the subordinate, is supposed to express concerns to a superior officer. The Navy encourages what it calls a “questioning attitude” supported by “forceful backup.” But Parker did not press her concerns with Coppock about the oncoming ship.
At 1:25 a.m., the Fitzgerald was 6,000 yards from the Crystal, 5,000 yards from the Wan Hai 266 and on a collision course with the Maersk Evora, approaching from 14,000 yards away. There was still time for the highly maneuverable Fitzgerald to get out of the way.
But Coppock disobeyed Benson’s standing orders. Rather than call Benson for help, she decided to continue on her own. Coppock didn’t call down to the combat room to ask for help, either.
“I decided to try and handle it,” she said.
At around 1:30 a.m., time had run out. Parker ran inside from the bridge wing, yelling, “They’re coming right at us.”
Coppock looked up and spotted the superstructure of the Crystal through the bridge windows. She stepped out on the starboard wing for a better look and realized she was in trouble. In Navy terms, the Fitzgerald was in extremis — in grave danger of catastrophe.
Denís Galocha, special to ProPublica
To avoid the Crystal, Coppock decided to order a hard turn to the right, the standard action for an evasive maneuver under international navigation rules.
She shouted the command to Womack to pass on to the helmsman. But Womack did not immediately understand her order. After Womack hesitated, Coppock decided that she was not going to clear the Crystal by going toward the right. Such a turn would put her on a possible collision with the Wan Hai 266.
“Oh shit, I’m so fucked! I’m so fucked!" she screamed.
Coppock could have ordered the Fitzgerald into reverse; there was still time to stop. Arleigh Burke destroyers can come to a complete halt from 20 knots within 500 feet or so.
Instead, Coppock ordered a move that disregarded the very basics of her training. She commanded the helmsman to gun the destroyer’s powerful engines to full speed and duck in front of the Crystal by heading left. “All ahead flank,” she ordered. “Hard left rudder.”
Helmsman-in-training Simona Nelson had taken the wheel of a destroyer at sea for the first time in her life 25 minutes earlier. Nelson froze, unsure of how to respond.
Petty Officer 1st Class Samuel Williams noticed Nelson struggling. He took control of the helm and did as Coppock ordered: He pushed the throttle to full and turned the rudder hard left. The ship’s engines revved to full power.
The move put the Fitzgerald directly into the path of the oncoming Crystal.
Coppock did not sound the collision alarm to warn sailors of the impending risk.
“I just got so wrapped up in trying to do anything that I had to just drop the ball on everything else that I needed to do,” she said.
Instead, she ran out to the starboard bridge wing. The Crystal’s blunt prow loomed above her, a wall of black steel angled sharply upward. To keep from pitching overboard, Coppock seized the alidade, a large metallic instrument used for taking bearings.
“Grab onto something,” Womack shouted to his fellow sailors on the Fitzgerald bridge.
At 1:30:34 a.m. on June 17, 2017, at 34.52 degrees north latitude and 139.07 degrees east longitude, the ACX Crystal slammed into the USS Fitzgerald. The 30,000-ton Crystal was moving at 18 knots. The 8,261-ton Fitzgerald had accelerated to 22 knots.
The Crystal’s prow and its protruding lower bow seized the Fitzgerald like a pincer. The top dug into Benson’s stateroom, 160 feet back from the Fitzgerald’s bow, shearing off the steel hull and crumpling his cabin. The bottom ripped across Berthing 2 and nearby compartments, leaving a hole 13 feet by 17 feet.
3D rendering by Stefan Fichtel/ixtract GmbH
The two ships locked together immediately, moving through the water gunwale to gunwale for an instant. Then the tremendous force of the collision cleaved them apart.
Footage from video camera on the aft deck of the USS Fitzgerald. The picture goes dark for a second as the the Crystal hits.
The Crystal swung 125 degrees to the right in two minutes. The impact knocked the cargo ship onto a collision course with the giant Maersk Evora. The captain of the Crystal took evasive action that unfolded slowly as the big ships carefully maneuvered around each other in the crowded seas. It would take an hour for the Crystal to return to the scene to offer aid. None of the Crystal’s 20-member crew was seriously injured, but structural damage was significant. It would take 35 tons of steel to repair.
Footage from video cameras on the foredeck of the USS Fitzgerald. The ship’s 5-inch gun occupies the foreground. Beyond, moonlight illuminates the Pacific.
The Fitzgerald rolled sharply to port, snapping 20 degrees from right to left as it broke free of the Crystal. It settled out with a 7-degree list to starboard. Out of control, the destroyer spun 360 degrees through the water, completing the circle in five minutes.
When it came to rest, the Fitzgerald had lost power and communications.
The ship was dead in the water.
Chapter 4: Berthing 2
“Grandma’s Prayers Are Still Working”
Petty Officer 2nd Class Rod Felderman had awakened in his top bunk at the moment of impact. He’d heard the shouts of water on deck. He pushed back his sleeping curtain. Dark, cold water was rising quickly around him. It had almost reached his rack.
Felderman stuck his legs out to jump down but felt a sailor below him and recoiled. However, he realized he had to get going. He put his legs in the rising water and lowered himself down.
He was instantly up to his neck. He fought his way to a ladder exiting the starboard side of the ship. He saw other men standing in line in front of him, their heads bobbing in the water. They were starting to panic.
“Go! Go!” one sailor shouted. “It is blocked,” another sailor responded. Debris covered the door leading to the ladder and to safety.
Felderman was going to be submerged in seconds. He took a breath and went under. A battle lantern lit the quarters underwater, but the light was poor, and there was no clear path to escape. And now he was desperate for air.
He thrust himself upward. He burst out into a small pocket of air between two pipes. He found only inches of space between the water level and the top of the compartment.
He smashed his head into the opening so hard that he bruised his face, split his skin and began bleeding.
“I was raving like a wild animal for air, pushing my face as high as I could,” he remembered.
He sucked in what air he could and went under again.
Berthing 2 was the sleeping quarters for 35 sailors. Seven men died there, most of them bunked on the starboard side where the Crystal gouged a hole in the Fitzgerald. Here’s how it happened.
The blow tilted the deck 14 degrees off level, hurling men from their beds and uprooting lockers and furniture.
As water poured in, the Fitzgerald tilted 7 degrees the other direction. Sailors slipped and fell trying to escape.
The starboard exit was blocked by debris. The port exit with stairs was the best route out.
But men had to squeeze through narrow passages in the dark, fighting past water to reach it.
The sleeping quarters on a warship can be surprisingly serene. Lights are on in the berthing from 6 to 10 a.m. and from 6 to 10 p.m. Otherwise it’s dark, as sailors sleep in shifts.
The coffin lockers provide modest refuge, with only a curtain for privacy. The tallest sailors often try to get the top bunk, where they can stretch out more. The bottom racks were the least desirable, especially the ones near the busy ladder exits at each end of the berthing. Seasoned sailors preferred the middle bunks — shoulder height, easy to roll into. For some men, bottom rack or top, the rocking of the waves or the low, constant hum of an underway ship resulted in the deepest possible sleep.
Gabriel Cantu, a petty officer second class, had hit his rack at 9:30 p.m. He had first watch the next day. Sonar Technician Kamari Eason had first watch, too, but didn’t get to bed until midnight. Petty Officer 3rd Class John Mead managed to grab a shower before he turned in at 11:30. Matthew King, a sonar technician first class, had just finished his watch shift. He had lain in his bunk — Berthing 2, port side, Rack 44 — and watched a movie before falling asleep. Seaman Dakota Rigsby, one of the youngest in the compartment, had sacked out on a bench in the lounge — it was quieter than his bunk.
The Crystal’s lancing of the starboard wall of Berthing 2 shattered the calm.
One weapons specialist heard a sound like a bomb going off. Another sailor said he could hear what sounded like a huge waterfall and felt what seemed like a cold breeze blowing through the quarters. Denis Medved, a young seaman whose bunk lay closest to the hole, was blasted out of his bed to the other side of the berthing.
The sailors rescued one another. They grabbed shipmates from their beds. They hauled them through surging water, slipping, stumbling toward exits. They pushed one another to survive.
It was Khalil Legier’s first night in Berthing 2, having moved earlier that day from another quarters. He rolled out of his bunk — bottom rack, port side, second row — and into the bottom rack across the aisle before standing up. Scott Childers was behind him but seemed frozen, unable to move. Legier grabbed Childers by the neck, and with his other hand grabbed the shirt of the sailor in front him. They started out for the exit as a threesome.
Seaman Brayden Harden broke for the ship’s starboard side, straight into the maw of the flood. Someone grabbed him and hurled him toward the port side to the exit ladder there.
In another setting, the sudden inundation might have drowned everyone alive. But the sailors had been trained since their first days on the Fitzgerald to escape by putting on blindfolds and feeling their way to the exits.
What’s more, the Fitzgerald sailors in Berthing 2 were close. They had spent four months at sea. They woke together. Showered together. Worked, ate and relaxed together. And then returned at night to sleep in the same compartment together. Two men might spend 24 hours never more than 3 feet apart. They knew each other better than many brothers.
The trust explained the orderly line they formed at the ladder. As they clambered up, water in the compartment rose and forced air out of the berthing. Men flew out the small opening at the top like office messages through a pneumatic tube.
Twenty-seven men escaped up the port ladder in about 90 seconds.
The average temperature of the ocean off the coast of Japan in June is around 70 degrees. That temperature might be fine for a warm summer day. But it’s dangerously cold for water.
Many people involuntarily open their mouths when they hit cold water, a reaction to the shock. If you manage to take a breath, you probably can’t hold it long — panic makes the heart beat faster and the body use more oxygen than normal.
As water fills your mouth, it can flood the windpipe and the esophagus. Your body temperature drops. Your muscles weaken. Your lungs introduce water into your circulatory system, thinning your blood and causing abnormal chemical reactions.
Death usually comes from a heart attack or a reduced blood supply to the brain. Depending on psychological and physiological factors like your height and fitness, it can take seconds or several minutes.
The handful of men remaining in Berthing 2 were running out of time.
Mead, a burly weapons specialist from Scottsdale, Arizona, had been the last person to reach the line of men waiting to exit the port ladder. The water had reached his waist.
He looked to his right and saw water pouring into the compartment through a hole in the starboard side that reached from floor to ceiling. The weight of the incoming water threw the Fitzgerald off kilter.
Mead slipped on the tilting floor and felt something pull him backward. The floodwaters had forced open the door of the common bathroom, creating a vacuum that sucked in Mead and another man, Gary Rehm Jr., a weapons specialist from Virginia.
Mead fought his way out, but a pair of lockers blocked his path. As he struggled to get past, Mead felt a push and saw Rehm behind him.
As Mead half-walked, half-swam toward the open scuttle, he had to battle his way through debris.
Mead got wedged between a floating locker and the ceiling. The water was closing around him. He tried to take a final, deep breath but instead swallowed the salty, chemical-filled water. In his last seconds of consciousness, he grabbed an overhead pipe and propelled himself toward the escape hatch.
Tapia and Vaughan looked down into the scuttle one more time and noticed a ghostly shape moving through the water. The men reached down and hauled out Mead, the second, and last, sailor rescued by the two petty officers from Texas.
Tapia and Vaughan, joined by other sailors, tried to close the scuttle. But they’d waited too long. Water was flowing through. The men were now battling the force of the ocean. There was nothing they could do. They turned to Mead.
He was in bad shape. His eyes were bloodshot. He was coughing up water. Tapia and Vaughan grabbed Mead and headed to the mess room, the ship’s main cafeteria and one of the biggest spaces on the Fitzgerald.
One sailor there asked a chief petty officer, “Are we abandoning ship, or are we fighting?”
“I don’t know,” answered the chief.
The mess room became a command post for the wounded — only a handful of sailors had suffered serious injuries, but many more appeared to be in shellshock, unable to function.
Vaughan took out a grease pencil and started writing on a table. Without electricity, he was trying to do a head count by memory.
After some confusion, it became clear that most of the sailors had escaped from Berthing 2.
But seven were missing.
Denís Galocha, special to ProPublica
Felderman found himself alone on the starboard side of the Fitzgerald. He was swimming through a dark swirl that didn’t make any sense to him, even though he had trained blindfolded to be able to exit in the dark.
As he thrashed in the murk, his lungs and stomach hurt. He couldn’t decide if he was dead or alive. “It felt like I could almost breathe underwater,” he said. “Maybe I should just wait because this seems very unreal.” He thought about his wife, Liz, and their soon-to-be-born daughter, Alice. Visions of them attending his memorial service played in his head.
“I tumbled like the mad swimming dog I was then toward a light,” he remembered.
As he neared the starboard side escape hatch, he brushed against another sailor, floating near a water fountain. His head was above water, and Felderman thought he could hear him gasping for air.
Felderman began to lose energy. Somehow, he drifted up through the opening on the starboard side. He looked up and saw the door for Berthing 1 — located one deck above Berthing 2.
“Grandma’s prayers are still working,” he thought.
A sailor found him outside the door. He walked Felderman to the personnel office for treatment. Felderman’s face was bleeding, bruised and swollen. Friends hurried to check on him. Felderman was a popular sailor. He loved “Star Wars” and could make a whistle that sounded like a sonar signal. He told them he was relieved to be alive.
But as he lay there, Felderman began to go into shock, shaking from the cold. He was having difficulty breathing and could only draw in short, shallow breaths. He was given an inhaler to help. Hospital corpsmen tried to start an IV and piled warm blankets over him. One sailor stayed with him, holding his head while he continued vomiting and helping him to urinate into a trash bag.
Felderman mistook the care for safety.
“We must not be sinking anymore,” he recalled thinking.
The fate of the seven men in Berthing 2 turned into a test of command.
As dawn approached, Perez stormed up to Babbitt. He demanded permission to dive into the flooded compartment to rescue the men — or retrieve their bodies. They were his sailors and he was not giving up on them.
Babbitt refused. Such a rescue mission risked the lives of the rest of the crew and the ship by breaking flooding boundaries. Perez continued to argue. The heated exchange didn’t end until the ship’s highest-ranking enlisted man pulled Perez away to cool him down.
Perez did not give up. Ogilvie and Vaughan volunteered to make an attempt with him. The three petty officers went to a locker and retrieved diving fins and a mask. They made their way to the hatch leading to the starboard side of Berthing 1, which had not flooded to the top.
Peering down, the trio of sailors realized they were actually seeing down into Berthing 2. The 221-square-foot hole had exposed the Fitzgerald to open sea, allowing light from the sun rising at dawn to penetrate the hold.
“I think I see a shoe down there,” Perez told Ogilvie, shining a flashlight.
“Okay, let’s do it, man, let’s go get this guy,” Ogilvie said.
The two men played rock, paper, scissors. Perez won. He put on a diving mask, and Ogilvie and Vaughan lowered him into the water to retrieve the sailor. He returned empty-handed.
“I thought it was somebody,” Perez told Ogilvie.
The men resigned themselves. The sailors were dead.
To prepare for possible retrieval of the bodies, several crewmen gathered in the chiefs’ dining area. As a group, they decided: Whether the men appeared dead or alive, each would receive emergency treatment. The group would first strip them naked, dry them off and then use the ship’s automated external defibrillators. Then, they would do CPR by hand. If that didn’t work, they would provide mouth-to-mouth.
It was desperate, even morbid. But the crew wanted to try something, anything, to relieve its helplessness and grief.
“Sitting and waiting for the bodies wasn’t so bad at first, but the doc warned the group that some people would freak out, and that the dead would spurt water when we did chest compressions,” Alex Helbig, an ensign, later wrote. “I brought out a bucket for people to vomit in.”
The plan was canceled when it was clear that nobody at that moment was going to retrieve the bodies.
Chapter 5. Fight the Ship
“I Realized That the Miracle Was You Guys, the Crew”
Lt. j.g. Stephany Breau had deftly handled the Fitzgerald during the near miss outside of Sasebo. Now she was called into action again. She was the ship’s damage control assistant.
It was her job to fix the Fitzgerald.
Breau ran from her cabin through the darkness and in two minutes reached Damage Control Central — a special section in an engineering room designed to act as an emergency operations post.
She picked up a microphone for the shipwide intercom: “I assume all duties and responsibilities for damage control onboard USS Fitzgerald,” she announced. She sounded the alarm for general quarters, directing sailors to pre-assigned stations designated for emergencies.
Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are designed to be the most survivable ships in the Navy. The Fitzgerald could defend against torpedoes, cruise missiles and strafing. It had multiple backups for critical systems — three radar systems, four kinds of compasses, reinforced hulls and stations throughout the ship that could be activated for navigation.
Now, that survivability was put to the test.
Fitzgerald crew members were missing. Five sailors were trapped in sonar compartments in the front of the ship. The seven from Berthing 2 could not be located.
The ship was flooding. By 2:45 a.m., the ship’s forward compartments had flooded with some 85 tons of water. That figure would grow to 514 tons as the night progressed.
Its communications systems were collapsing. Breau’s announcement was the last of the night from the ship’s main intercom.
Without electricity, critical systems were on battery backups. Sailors used flashlights and cellphones to guide their way through the darkened ship. The space below decks grew sweltering without air conditioning.
The destroyer’s propulsion system was damaged. A pump lubricating the starboard shaft failed, forcing its shutdown. The Fitzgerald was left with one propeller for power. It also could move no faster than about 5 knots, the speed of a person jogging. Any faster, and the amount of seawater rushing in would increase.
Breau attacked the greatest threat: water. Berthing 2 and Auxiliary Room 1, housing electrical equipment, had flooded. So, too, had a main passageway on the starboard side. Berthing 1 was inundated, too. All of its sailors managed to escape.
Breau had to worry about physics. The free surface effect describes a phenomenon when water partially fills a closed space. The weight of water shifting side to side in such a space can disrupt the ship’s stability and threaten to capsize it.
She did algebra, scribbling calculations on the back of a notebook. She had to figure out the weight of water in the ship in case she needed to counterflood the Fitzgerald, a technique to deliberately flood other ship compartments to counterbalance areas already filled with water.
Perhaps the biggest worry was progressive flooding — water levels that continue to rise. The Fitzgerald had been set to condition Zebra: All necessary hatches and doors had been sealed tight. But still, water seeped through air ducts and open conduits between compartments. The levels kept rising.
Breau set up flooding boundaries, where sailors from the rapid response Flying Squad would hold the line against the inrushing sea. They set out with pumps to drain the hardest hit areas.
One piece of training that Benson did not have to postpone dealt with the safety of his sailors. From his first weeks on the ship, he had worked with Breau to drill sailors on condition Zebra and on getting out of sleeping quarters.
“These seamen knew exactly what they needed to do and how to do it,” she said.
Up on the bridge, Babbitt was fighting to keep the ship afloat.
Sailors who had escaped drowning began to show up dressed only in T-shirts and underwear, covered in soapy firefighting foam from a pipe that had burst.
One was Jackson Schrimsher. He took over the steering controls but found that they were not responding. Babbitt ordered him to a backup navigation station in the back of the ship known in Navy parlance as aft steering.
Babbitt jury-rigged a system to pass his orders. He would call Breau, who would then relay them back to Schrimsher via a special emergency intercom.
For the next 15 hours, Schrimsher guided the ship from a small, windowless room. He had no relief: The ship’s other master helmsman had drowned in Berthing 2. Schrimsher fought the list, the slowed propulsion, the shifting currents. Every three minutes he switched rudder positions to keep the Fitzgerald stable, tacking slowly back and forth. He made more than 300 course adjustments in all.
Babbitt was trying to save his sailors. The five crew members trapped in sonar were rescued early on. Womack appeared in a daze. Coppock was inconsolable, sobbing and berating herself.
Babbitt told her to go sit down.
At 4:37 a.m., just after sunrise, the first help arrived: Japanese Coast guard vessels and medical helicopters. The Fitzgerald immediately felt the loss of its sailors. Communication with the Japanese crew was difficult — one of those missing, Yeoman 3rd Class Shingo Douglass, was the only person on board fluent in Japanese.
Several chiefs strapped Benson to a stretcher, lowering him from the bridge to the flight deck located on the ship’s tail. They passed Benson vertically from man to man down the steep ladders.
The flight deck on the rear of the ship was listing too hard for a helicopter landing. So a Japanese corpsman dropped down to the deck and hitched Benson’s litter to a winch to bring him on board, followed by White, who had become Benson’s caretaker.
Breau began to win the battle against the sea. Powerful pumps designed to quickly move huge amounts of water failed. Instead, Breau dispatched portable pumps, the kind available at many hardware stores, to the most seriously flooded compartments.
Exhaust from the gas-engine pumps reached dangerous levels in confined areas of the ship, creating an alarmingly thick haze. But they “saved our ship,” Breau said.
One stubborn area remained: Water continued to flood into a lower deck compartment carrying equipment for the Tomahawk missile system. None of the pumps were powerful enough to carry the water out.
Breau’s last trick was a bucket brigade. For 10 hours, about two dozen sailors at a time snaked in a long, tight line from below ship up three ladder wells to the main deck. Sailors rotated in and out, relieving comrades fatigued by the nonstop passing of 10-pound buckets of water.
As pumps and generators and sailors worked to help, the water level began to stabilize.
At about 8:30 a.m., the first American rescuers arrived on scene, Navy tugboats from Yokosuka. They lashed themselves to the Fitzgerald to correct the list and guide it forward. A few hours later, the USS Dewey, another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, arrived to assist. Dewey sailors poured on board the Fitzgerald, bringing food, water and fresh muscle.
It was then, at last, that Breau realized the Fitzgerald was going to make it back home.
Crew migrated to the main deck in search of relief and rest after what seemed an endless night. They lay down amid a tangle of twisting red fire hoses draining water from below.
They munched on slices of turkey and cans of tuna, handfuls of grapes and orange wedges, and drank bottles of water. Toilets were not working, so Babbitt ordered buckets put into two adjoining compartments.
Ogilvie sat down to smoke a cigar beneath a missile. Lighting up beneath hundreds of gallons of jet fuel broke all kinds of rules, not to mention common sense.
It just didn’t seem to matter much at the moment.
The Fitzgerald came into view of Yokosuka harbor late in the afternoon on June 17. It was moving so slowly that it took several more hours to reach shore. All traffic headed into Tokyo Bay, one of the world’s busiest harbors, stopped. It was an extraordinary sight: scores of massive cargo vessels slowly following a disabled American warship.
Just before 7 p.m., the Fitzgerald finally tied up to Pier 12, the same place it had departed 36 hours before. Hundreds of people had gathered. Family and friends huddled under white tents. Sailors from all over the base arrived to help. The Red Cross and military charities stood by with food, water and new clothes.
Navy divers had arrived in wetsuits and a rescue boat to retrieve the seven dead sailors. They stationed themselves by the Fitzgerald’s starboard side, which faced away from the pier to conceal the worst of the damage. They had trouble getting into the Fitzgerald at first. The hole on the starboard side was jagged. Inside, it was filled with debris. The water was oily and dark. It was not until 4:54 a.m. that they managed to swim into Berthing 2.
They found Seaman Dakota Rigsby first. He was floating in the starboard exit, his foot lodged between the exit ladder and the wall. It was unclear whether Rigsby had been trapped. He often slept on benches in the lounge area, where he could stretch out more than in his bunk.
Rigsby, 19, from Palmyra, Virginia, population 104, was the fourth generation in his family to serve. On the Fitzgerald, he worked in the cafeteria. He liked spicy foods, scary movies and TV comedies. He guzzled energy drinks and consumed all things having to do with Pokémon and anime. He had recently become engaged and hoped to become a chief petty officer.
The divers placed Rigsby’s body into a bag and swam toward the dive boat, stationed next to the Fitzgerald. They had stretched a tarp over the boat to shield the operation from the media, family members and spectators. Rigsby’s body was recovered at 5:23 a.m.
The same process was repeated six more times.
At 7:45 a.m., the divers brought up Douglass, of San Diego, California. His body was found floating in the starboard side lounge of Berthing 2.
Douglass, 25, grew up in America and Japan, the son of a Marine sergeant and a Japanese mother. The 7th Fleet allowed him to live in both worlds. He was fluent in Japanese and had become a master helmsman.
At 8 a.m., Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos Victor Sibayan, 23, was retrieved from Berthing 2. His body was also found in the lounge area.
Sibayan was born in Manila, Philippines and grown up in Chula Vista, California. He had been raised Navy: His father was a retired master chief who had lectured him on the importance of standing watch to ensure the safety of his ship, noted an obituary in the Times of San Diego.
At 8:15 a.m., the divers recovered Xavier Martin, 24, of Halethorpe, Maryland. He was the third person found floating in the lounge.
The son of a veteran, Martin was one of Benson’s favorites. He was an eager young sailor who had advanced quickly and impressed Benson with his initiative. Benson had made him a personal assistant.
As a personnel specialist, Martin was well known on board for his upbeat, cheerful attitude. He had a taste for sports cars and had purchased a bright yellow 1992 Mazda sports car in Japan, the steering wheel on the right side.
At 8:22 a.m., the divers raised Sonar Technician 3rd Class Ngoc “Tan” Truong Huynh, 25, of Oakville, Connecticut. He was found beneath a television, though the divers assessed that he had not been trapped there.
Huynh had celebrated his 25th birthday one day before his death. A naturalized citizen who was born in Vietnam, he was the oldest of four siblings. He loved to watch soccer, and his favorite video games were Fallout and Lethal Weapon.
At 8:28 a.m., Noe Hernandez, 26, was found near the starboard lounge. He had a laceration on his head, its cause unknown.
Hernandez, a deeply faithful Roman Catholic, loved spending time with his wife, Dora, and 3-year-old son. The family traveled extensively during downtime from their Navy lives. He was a strong swimmer, worked out constantly and was an avid outdoorsman.
At 8:35 a.m., the final body was brought to the surface. It was Gary Rehm, 37, of Hampton, Virginia. He was found inside the bathroom, its door closed — the last place he had been seen by Mead, who credited Rehm with saving his life.
Rehm was the oldest sailor in the berthing and considered one of the best watch standers on the ship. A married man, grandson of a World War II Navy veteran, he was quiet, professional, reserved. He had served in Iraq and was nearing retirement from the Navy.
Dora Hernandez was in the crowd when the Fitzgerald had at last arrived, desperate for news about her husband, Noe. The Navy had not released any information. Rumors flew, but nobody officially knew who was alive, or injured, or dead.
For loved ones, the return of the Fitzgerald had been a macabre lottery. As sailors began to disembark, Dora watched several friends explode in joy at the sight of a loved one. “I was so happy for them,” Hernandez said. “But it was hard.”
Late that evening, after everyone had departed, Dora found herself left on the pier with a few friends. She decided to stay. For the rest of the night, she paced the concrete pier, back and forth along the 505-foot length of the Fitzgerald. In the morning, she brought fresh coffee to the sailors who stood watch. When told that Navy divers had arrived to search the Fitzgerald and that the bodies would be taken to the hospital, Hernandez jumped into a car with a friend and raced off.
At the hospital, a Navy officer delivered the news that the divers had retrieved Noe’s body. Feeling numb, Dora had one request: Could she see her husband one last time?
A Navy doctor agreed on one condition. Dora could not touch her husband. The sailors were supposed to be examined by a coroner in the exact condition they were found.
She went into a hospital room. Her husband lay on a metal table in a body bag. It was unzipped to reveal his face and chest.
Dora and Noe had been high school sweethearts. They had grown up together in Weslaco, Texas, a suburban town that sprawled along the Rio Grande, the brown, serpentine river that formed the border between Texas and Mexico.
It looked to Dora like her husband was sleeping. She leaned close to him and prayed.
“I was torturing myself, sitting there. It was very surreal,” she said. “Once I knew he was gone, there was nothing else I could do.”
On June 20, the men were to be flown home. Navy leaders planned a small ceremony at the U.S. Air Force base near Yokosuka to send the men on a military transport plane to Dover Air Force Base outside of Washington, D.C.
Fitzgerald family and crew members begged to be allowed to attend the dignified send off. The Navy rounded up several buses to make the trip to the air base.
The crew gathered on the broad gray tarmac. The seven coffins sat on a makeshift bier in front of the transport plane. Hernandez was there with 3-year-old Leon in a baby carrier strapped to her chest.
Adm. John Richardson, the head of the Navy, had flown in from Washington. He delivered brief remarks.
When she heard Richardson, Hernandez decided she wanted to say something. He had not known the crew personally. But she had.
She stood nervously in front of the group, unused to being the center of attention. She looked out on the sailors of the Fitzgerald. Benson leaned against a cane. The sailors’ faces were exhausted and worn. The disaster could have been so much worse. But they had worked together. They had saved each other.
“I was on the dock waiting for a miracle to happen, for my husband to come home,” she told the crowd. “And then I realized that the miracle was you guys, the crew.”
Denís Galocha, special to ProPublica
In the hours and weeks after the crash, the Fitzgerald’s crew members were besieged — by doctors, reporters, investigators. They gave firsthand accounts for formal inquiries. They spoke with therapists concerned about their mental health. They tried to reconnect with family and with one another.
They did not get much rest. Within weeks, the Navy had begun to scatter crew members to other ships in the 7th Fleet. Navy leaders needed their bodies to plug staffing shortfalls on other destroyers.
Some found it difficult to return to their old jobs. The trauma was too fresh. The Navy supplied scores of additional psychologists, therapists, counselors and chaplains. Many sailors were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, although the Navy has never released a formal count.
Will Marquis, a petty officer first class who escaped Berthing 2, found himself unable to concentrate on even simple paperwork tasks. He was diagnosed with PTSD and is currently receiving treatment.
“A lot of people are having issues,” Marquis said. “They didn’t want to get help because they didn’t know what it would do to their career or they figured they would get past it.”
Felderman wrote a harrowing seven-page account of the ordeal. He illustrated it with haunting black and white drawings: bunkmates lining up for the inescapable starboard exit, sailors bobbing in seawater up to their necks, a body floating in the floodwaters. Felderman has returned home to the United States with his wife and daughter.
Some sailors were eager to get back to work. Vaughan limped around on his fractured thigh for several days until his own sailors told him to see a doctor. He did not go home for two months, crashing with friends on base.
“It definitely helped me to have people around,” Vaughan said.
Vaughan, Tapia, Breau, Schrimsher, Stawecki, Ogilvie, Perez, Caldwell and White were among the three dozen sailors given commendations for their actions in helping save crew members. Most remain in the Navy and have moved on to different posts.
The Navy’s search for accountability made healing more difficult, especially after the collision of the McCain in August 2017. Suddenly, Navy leaders had to explain to Congress how two American warships had crashed with two cargo vessels in the space of two months.
The Navy’s investigators concluded that sailors bore the primary blame for the collision. Benson, Coppock and the bridge and combat information center watch teams had failed to use basic seamanship skills to escape an “avoidable” accident. They had been “excessively fatigued” and had not taken steps to rest. Coppock had ignored basic rules of the road and the captain’s orders.
Shortfalls in training, the lack of personnel and overconfident leadership were deemed contributing factors to the collision. Senior Navy leadership fired several officers involved in the readiness of the 7th Fleet. Aucoin, the 7th Fleet commander, was relieved of command. Adm. Thomas Rowden, the navy’s senior surface warfare officer, was forced to retire and stripped of a rank.
The Navy explicitly ruled out problems with any of the ship’s radars.
The investigation into the Fitzgerald sailors resulted in accusations of prosecutorial overreach and high-level interference. For instance, the Navy charged Benson and other officers with negligent homicide — then abruptly withdrew the accusations without explanation last summer. Defense attorneys said Navy officials were scapegoating low-ranking officers and sailors to conceal poor decisions made by senior Navy leadership.
Coppock was charged with dereliction of duty and pleaded guilty. She remains in the Navy and is expected to be a witness against Benson and Combs in their trials. Navy investigators have praised her candor and cooperation. She has a tattoo on her left wrist with seven shamrocks. It features the coordinates of the crash.
Combs has pleaded not guilty and continues to fight the dereliction of duty charge against her. Her trial is also scheduled for the spring. She remains in the Navy.
Criminal charges against Woodley were dismissed, though he was referred for possible disciplinary action.
Babbitt was relieved of duty and given a formal letter of reprimand, effectively ending his chances for promotion. He has transferred to a new duty post in Europe.
Benson continues to struggle with what happened on the Fitzgerald and its aftermath.
After the crash, he was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. He remains in the Navy and is currently receiving weekly treatment in Washington, D.C.
Talking about the accident is not easy for him. He has trouble remembering details. He is often seized by emotion. Sometimes he tears up. Sometimes he flashes the fierce, angry glare that he once reserved for errant sailors.
He was fired as commander of the Fitzgerald, a punishment he did not contest. He was the captain. The ship nearly sank. Seven sailors died. “It was my responsibility,” he said.
But after the Navy charged him with negligent homicide and other crimes, Benson fought back hard. He may have had problems as a captain. But he was not a criminal.
All but two charges against Benson have been dismissed. He faces one count of dereliction of duty and a second for mishandling the ship. Both are felony equivalents. A recent legal ruling has put the case in limbo and no trial date is set.
“A terrible thing happened. That's something I will live with the rest of my life, and dedicate my life to, honoring the men that I lost,” he said. “But I don’t see where I broke any laws.”
The Fitzgerald was carried by an ocean-going transport vessel from Japan to a shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi. The estimated repair bill is $330 million.
A small crew remains with the ship. Every day, they pass by the crest of the Fitzgerald, a shield with four shamrocks above a blue cross.
It bears the ship’s motto: “Protect Your People.”
How We Investigated the Navy’s Twin Disasters in the Pacific
We set out to reconstruct the accidents in which the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain collided with cargo vessels within a few months of each other in 2017, the deadliest accidents at sea in the Navy in four decades. We sent out a team of reporters to interview scores of current and former sailors, officers and commanders, as well as family members and friends. We conducted dozens of interviews with current and former Navy admirals and senior civilian leaders, including the former secretary of the Navy. We attended courts-martial and military hearings. We spoke with experts in ship construction, maritime law and military justice. Many sources were interviewed multiple times. Interviews were conducted in Japan, Virginia, Maryland, California and Washington, D.C.
We obtained two confidential reports on the collisions that included more than 13,000 pages of documents, photos and transcripts of sailor interviews. The material included ship logs, disciplinary records and raw data. Navy sources provided emails, internal memos and accounts of private meetings. We also relied on the Navy’s publicly released reports, here, here, here and here, which detailed shortfalls in training, equipment and manpower. We drew upon testimony given by Navy officials to Congress, as well as testimony and motions delivered during courts-martial.
We used reports from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Government Accountability Office and numerous other official sources. Several news outlets have extensively reported on the collisions, including Stars and Stripes and USNI News. The Navy Times published a multipart series containing portions of the confidential reports that we reviewed. To understand the Fitzgerald, we toured a ship of the same class, built our own 1:700 scale model and used computer simulations to recreate the Fitzgerald and spaces on board. The Navy did not grant interviews with current Navy leaders. It also did not answer the majority of questions contained in a 10-page list sent by ProPublica in October 2018.
To reconstruct scenes in the narrative, ProPublica combined written accounts, transcripts, interviews and ship logs. ProPublica attempted to contact those mentioned by name in this story. In cases where people turned down our requests for interviews, or where we received no response, we used transcripts of interviews, written statements and interviews from eyewitness sources. All statements in quotation marks are exact quotations taken from interviews or transcripts. In a very few cases, scenes rely upon interviews or testimony from a single source.
The following people contributed to our reporting: Robi Bean, Sophie Chou, Jeff Ernsthausen, Stefan Fichtel, Xaquín G.V., Joshua Hunt, Ian MacDougall, Claire Perlman, Gabriel Sandoval, Ann Schneider, Nate Schweber, Lucy Sexton, Ginger Thompson and Lucas Waldron
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