Navy commanders facing negligent homicide charges for collisions

| January 17, 2018 | 68 Comments

According to NPR, the commanders of the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain both face charges of Negligent Homicide for the collisions of their vessels last year;

A Navy investigation completed in November 2017 determined that both accidents were “avoidable” and reflected “multiple failures by watch standers.”

In the case of the USS Fitzgerald, the commander, two lieutenants and one lieutenant junior grade face possible charges of dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel and negligent homicide.

The commander of the USS John S. McCain will face possible charges of dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel and negligent homicide. A chief petty officer also faces one possible charge of dereliction of duty.


An investigation into the Fitzgerald collision, reviewed by, found that watchstanders were looking the wrong way as the ship entered a collision course with the container ship ACX Crystal. When the danger was finally identified, the officer of the deck froze, giving an order and then retracting it as danger rapidly approached.

An investigation into the McCain collision, released in November, revealed massive confusion on the bridge as the ship made an early morning passage through one of the busiest sea lanes in the world.

Sanchez was on the bridge, but had not summoned a sea-and-anchor detail to assist with the movement, according to the investigation.

When he observed the ship’s helmsman was having trouble staying on course and controlling speed, Sanchez ordered the duties be divided up. But the message was not communicated, and chaos ensued, resulting in the helmsman incorrectly declaring the ship had lost steering.

The investigation also found that several of the sailors on watch had been transferred from the cruiser USS Antietam, and were not familiar with steering controls for the destroyer.

Category: Navy

Comments (68)

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  1. OldSoldier54 says:

    Hang ’em.

  2. luddite4change says:

    This is going to get ugly.

    • Hondo says:

      I’m guessing you’re correct, L4C.

      Though the ships’ Captains should be held accountable, I think charges of negligent homicide are an overreach. If that charge goes to trial, it will get ugly – the defense will pull out all the stops, and they have good arguments against. Further, in today’s permissive legal climate I don’t see the charge of negligent homicide sticking. And even if the court-martial panel buys it, I’m guessing the CNA will overturn it on appeal.

      Hazarding a vessel and negligence? Dead to rights IMO.

      • NHSparky says:

        If these guys are guilty of negligent homicide, the Admirals, etc., who put these people under soul-crushing Op tempos like they have now are just as guilty and should be there right beside these CO’s.

        • NEC338x says:

          Exactly. Letting maintenance and quals slide, undermanning units, and extending deployments should have vehemently opposed at the highest levels. Chain of command works both ways.

      • Luddite4change says:

        I pulled out the Manual for Court Martial to see what hazarding a vessel (Art. 110) entails.

        Maximum Punishments:

        Maximum punishment.

        Hazarding or suffering to be hazarded any vessel of the armed forces:
        Willfully and wrongfully. Death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct.

        Negligently. Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 2 years.

        Where I think this will get ugly is with respect to negligence. If either of the two captains where not doing anything that every other reasonable captain were doing with respect to training and manning of the bridge, then it will difficult to show that they were negligent. However, if either paper whipped qualifications, then its going to be painful to them.

        • Atkron says:

          Wasn’t one of them in his At-Sea cabin during these heavily traffic areas?

          • Kevin says:

            Yes, with instructions for the watch officer to immediately call him under several circumstances. Several of which occurred, some multiple times, without anyone calling the captain.

            • 11B-Mailclerk says:

              And the Captain is holding the bag for that, also.

              Navy types, please validate. A Captain not only has to post orders like that, but arrange for at least one guy to call him on it, under shitty conditions, for the “yup. I said even to check the correct time. It’s 0316. Going back to my cabin.” and -no- blowback.

              • thebesig says:

                Yes, those orders are posted in the night pass down log. Included in the log are conditions which require the officer of the deck to notify him, or to cause someone to notify him. There’s also the “catch all” order… “When in doubt, contact me.” – paraphrased.

        • Patrick408 says:

          Agree that negligence is the tough one to prove but if they did doctor with training records could be helpful to prove intent to cover up and “Dereliction of duty” seems like a no brainer with both incidents. Hopefully these new charges will reaffirm to all CO’s and senior leaders the importance of thier duties & responsibilities that comes with rank!
          My Marine buddy lost his son on the Fitz. My sympathies to all the families and friends who are affected by these incidents and RIP to those killed.

  3. CW2 Club Manager, USA Ret says:

    Me thinks the negligent homicide is a bit much but everything else applies. While the Captain is ultimately responsible, there is enough blame to go around and should. How in 8the F did our proud Navy sink to this level of leadership? Seems to me they put more emphasis in the Naval Academy (i.e., that other school)football team than in seamanship and leadership.

    • NECCSEBEECPO says:

      Sir your correct, but I say this in all respect to my CPO mess, but some blame for leadership and proper training falls on our Door steps.I was always taught and told my Officers that I was there to keep them out of jail, by guiding them to do the right thing.

      • Grunt says:

        Sage advice I heard in NCODP:

        Behind every fucked up LT is an NCO that failed in their duty.

        • A Proud Infidel®™ says:

          Having been an NCO myself, I have to say that sometimes you get an LT rock-headed and full enough of his own great ideas that you sometimes have to let them fall flat on their faces in hopes they’ll wake up, but you do so in a way that won’t affect your subordinates. I had to do that to an LT or two in order to let the CoC know we needed to get rid of them.

  4. Dave Hardin says:

    They were looking the wrong way?

    Ok, I will go along with that silly theme.

    Please, do not TxT and drive.

  5. Mason says:

    Looking the wrong way? Not familiar with the ship’s controls? Da phuk? Was Col Klink running these ships? I see nothing

  6. Wireman 611 says:

    One hundred hour work weeks. High OP tempo. Restrictions on alchohol and liberty. Admiral says that sailors need to work better when fatigued ( in a non war environment). I would say that the crews and officers need to be pulled off of these vessels and transferred to the place of courts martial. Like Hedonism 3.

    • The Other Whitey says:

      “Do more with less” has become remarkably common both in and out of the military in terms of manpower vs workload. Or maybe it’s always been that way, I dunno, I’m not that old.

      Some organizations (like mine) regard their ability to make ends meet as a point of pride, and that’s cool. And for the military, the ability to remain operational with fewer personnel makes sense from a war-preparedness standpoint. But the insistence of those in charge, be it in the military or civilian world, of piling on more and more and more work onto crews/units that already didn’t have enough bodies to go around, whether it be to make themselves look good or simply the unavoidable nature of the beast, is dangerous. It eventually reaches a point of diminishing returns.

      Even the most dedicated of individuals will eventually reach the point of “fuck it” as their dedication gets rewarded with further abuse. It’s a point of exhaustion, really. People have limits, beyond which they burn out and simply can’t perform effectively. Maybe the newer generation, shielded as they have been from adversity, reaches it sooner, maybe not.

      If this is found to be a factor in these incidents, then it needs to be a wake-up call for the Navy’s leadership. Because if it really was a factor—and it certainly appears to be a big one—and they sweep it under the rug and continue business as usual, more Sailors will die needlessly. It shouldn’t be a get-out-of-jail-free card for anyone, but it has to be recognized and corrected.

      Isn’t one of the major problems with the LCS concept insufficient crew size? Yeah, I’m sure that won’t bite anyone in the ass.

      • Mason says:

        The beatings will continue until morale improves

      • Atkron says:

        That whole LCS program is a frigging joke that is going to get those expensive aluminum hulled toys broken and sunk, and dead Sailors if we get into a real war time at sea situation….IMHO

      • A Proud Infidel®™ says:

        Amen to that, TOW! IMO it’s Human Nature, everyone’s dedication and loyalty has its limits and mine has been shat on in the past to where I’ve said “FUCK that guy, he took me for granted!”. I’ve also heard that those Little Crappy Ships as they’re called by some have quite a nasty habit of breaking down on a regular basis.

      • Reddevil says:

        I have a few friends that are either naval officers or merchant mariners. Both condemned the skipper of the Fitzgerald based on the location of the damage alone (apparently, Starboard side means they were the give way vessel- of course I knew this from driving my CorrectCraft across the lake).

        What interested me was the scorn the merchant guys had for the Navy’s ship driving abilities. According to them, the merchant fleet drives bigger and older ships ships with fewer bells and whistles through more congested channels far more frequently with a fraction of the watchstanders than the Navy.

        In their view this was clearly criminal negligence- either in training deficits or maintaining watch standards.

        I just sat back and enjoyed the debate.

        • thebesig says:

          When I was an Operations Specialist, the ships that I was on did better than the merchant ships when navigating via restricted visibility and with restricted mobility. There were times when we wondered if many of these merchant ships were crewed by retarded folk. There were also many merchant ships that did good during these conditions, but they unfortunately weren’t the norm that we saw.

          But, that was back in the 20th Century.

          We were among the last generation of those that embraced the “Old Navy” way of doing things. But, the draw down, shortage in manning, doing more with less, can do in can’t do situation, etc., lead to a hemorrhage of good Sailors, which lead to an effort to do anything possible to maintain bodies.

          This contributed to the “Old Navy” way of doing things as now something that “created a hostile working environment”, where one was vilified for daring to hold someone accountable for their poor judgements, vilified for refusing to enable failure to plan and failure to exercise good judgement, etc.

      • 11B-Mailclerk says:

        “ do more with less” never seems to be applied to flag-rank perks, ass-covering, or political interference.

        And is never, ever, applied to the Good Idea Fairy.

  7. OWB says:

    Uhmmm. These guys make it appear that a bunch of us who have never been on a ship’s crew could have done a better job of steering than they did. At least most of us would have the sense to find folks who did know how to do it prior to getting under way.

    No attention to 360 views and what impediments might be on/in your course? Hello??? Maybe my skepticism comes from too much time in aircraft, but it certainly would seem that seagoing vessels should be just as cognizant of what is around them as are aircraft.

    • SFC D says:

      It would seem that high school driver’s Ed courses teach better situational awareness than practiced by the folks driving these ships.

    • thebesig says:

      I rolled my eyes on this. Yes, there is 360 coverage and, during restricted visibility/restricted maneuvering, the sea and anchor detail was stationed to add additional eyes. Before it got to this, we had radar navigation and radar based common operational picture. The Operations Specialists should know, well in advance, if something as big as a merchant ship has steadied on a collision course.

      This is one of the reasons to why we had “avoiding course” maneuvering board drills… these drills assumed that a contact that we picked up on radar, one in motion, was on a collision course with us and would hit us if we didn’t move out of the way. We’d also recommend, to the bridge, to reach out to the other vessel via bridge to bridge, signals, etc., to try to get their attention to the fact that they were on a collision course.

      Based on what I’ve read of both incidents, both didn’t need to happen.

  8. A Proud Infidel®™ says:

    I wonder how many heads will roll and how hard, IMHO 100 hour work weeks are a slave labor workload, and how many years will it take to straighten things out? It sucks heavily that it took the loss of lives to shed light on how gracefully fucked up things are right now.

    • NHSparky says:

      As a former submariner, I think I speak for a lot of my fellow brothers of the ‘phin when I say that zero fucks given would be one too many.

      80-100 hour weeks in port were not at all uncommon, and 100+ at sea was the norm. Fortunately, with few exceptions, the mission was accomplished and nobody broke the boat, although it was real fucking close on the San Fran, aka “Frankenboat.”

      • Atkron says:

        Most of the Flight Deck crews work(ed) ‘Flight Ops’. That’s up to an 18 hour day in most cases. Box lunches between launch and recoveries…an hour to shower and wind down and hit the rack for 5 hours, only to start it all over again.

      • RM3(SS) says:

        Having been on the Tautog, those pictures of the San Fran still give me chills.
        We were short handed, stood port and starboard for over a month on one spec op. 6 on, 6 off with drills, field day and regular duties worked in there. It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.

      • Sparks says:

        NHSparky…I did a Google of the USS San Francisco incident. Again as an Army grunt, it’s kind of hard to understand hitting a mountain under water. I know charts are not always perfect but a former Submariner I know told me that the boats have to surface periodically in order to take a true position reading. I do not know if this is true. But in the incident report it stated that other charts available and that should have been used, showed “discolored water”, which the report said indicates a possible “seamount”. I can say, those men, save the one Sailor who died, are lucky to be alive. I would think that full speed into a solid object that doesn’t move is a life/death collision at best and a never knew what happened to them at the worst.

        :Note to self: Remember Sparks, these are some of the things which made you decide you could dig a foxhole quicker than you could shit an island.

  9. Atkron says:

    I’d like to know if they are transferring personnel between ships in order to keep manning up for deployments.

    Personnel were transferred to the Destroyer from a Cruiser? Did these Sailors just get off one deployment aboard their own ship, only to turn around and deploy with this one?

    I also don’t understand how a Skipper can transit one of the busiest straits in the world, and not set a Special Sea and Anchor Detail. Those extra eyeballs could have saved lives. While I think these Commanders should face charges for Dereliction of Duty. I think someone at the Chief of Naval Education and Training, Chief of Naval Personnel, 7th Fleet, and the Destroyer Squadron Commodore need to be censured for their parts that led to this mess.

    Speaking of Mess, I also think it is high time the CPO Mess went back to being Subject Matter Experts in their Ratings, instead of promotions being contingent upon how many Warfare Devices you wear, college degrees, and volunteer hours. No offense intended to any current or former CPO’s that read this.

    • HMCS(FMF) ret says:

      Atkron – I have no problem with your comments about the CPO mess… it was slowing becoming a political animal when I was wearing khakis and by the time I retired, you would have thought that it was an annex of the Wardroom, with some of the shit coming out of the MCPON’s mouth.

      • NHSparky says:

        I was seeing that 25 years ago. CPO’s not being allowed to discipline or correct minor infractions, rather, creating a “paper trail” for when Joe Schmuckatelli did something really stupid/dangerous.

        Because of this, we get people who are in soup sandwich commands going, “How did we ever get to this point?”

        • Atkron says:

          I too saw it, especially when I went to Shore Duty. I saw a guy get a NAM for doing ‘special inspection’ work on the aircraft…and the whole time that work was done he had been shitcanned out of the Airframe shop to Base MAA Force. The reason for the NAM, he was a point or two shy of finally making 2nd Class…so the MMCO hooked him up. I also saw a female Yeoman 1st Class come down to our shop to get her Airframe portion of the EAWS book signed off by my shop LPO. He never asked her any questions, never had her perform a simple safety wire task…nothing., he just gundecked it. I witnessed this happening, and walked over to my mail cubby, grabbed my book and threw it in the trash. She made Chief the next cycle.

          These two examples ended up in the Mess. She may have been a great yeoman, I have no idea. But, what if it was the EAWS that tipped the scales in her favor? The other guy was a complete and utter fool, that couldn’t turn a wrench or answer a simple question about the Aviation Structural Mechanic Rating…but he eventually made Chief. He should have HYT as a third class. I got out in 1997…everything, in my opinion, changed for the worse after Tailhook 1991. PC became the order of the day, and they tried introducing corporate mindsets through TQL, by empowering the E-3 and below into thinking they had a voice. You don’t have a voice, you’re there to learn the rating you’re striking for.

          Sorry, now I’m just ranting.

  10. Ex-PH2 says:

    I see this as a massive failure of seamanship from the top down. There’s something not “right” about the circumstances in each collision. I think I asked a while back on the first collision with the oil tanker why there was no one on lookout. Now I’d revise that to why were there no people on lookout on deck in all directions in that shipping lane?
    And same for the other ship: what was really going on there? If the helmsman was having so much difficulty, why wasn’t he getting some help?

    • thebesig says:

      Originally posted by Ex-PH2:

      If the helmsman was having so much difficulty, why wasn’t he getting some help?

      That’s a very valid question. Back in the 20th Century, one of the drills that the ship did involved steering drills where the helmsman loses control of the helm for some reason related to the mechanics of the helm.

      As soon as the helm “becomes inoperable” or has issues being operable, the helmsman reported that to the conning officer. At this point, procedures are initiated to shift steering to another part of the ship. On the ships I was on, it was aft steering.

      What if both are lost? Then we’re in a “restricted ability to maneuver” situation. At night, this comes with specific light displays on the mast, as well as fog horn signals.

      In the situation the two ships were in, condition Zebra would be set just above the waterline, and all levels below the waterline.

  11. Martinjmpr says:

    As terrible as these situations are, I am at least somewhat impressed that the Navy is holding the guys at the top responsible.

    I can’t help but think that if this was the Army, Air Force or Marines, they would try to lay the blame on an E-6 or E-5 and the officers above them would get, at worst, a career-ending unfavorable OER while the NCOs would be the ones clapped in handcuffs and charged at a court martial.

  12. Sparks says:

    I still do not understand this. People were looking the wrong way? Okay, well what about the myriad radar systems to detect every known vessel in their AO? Who was manning those systems and did not report to the bridge that the ships were on a collision course long before they could be in peril? Not a Navy guy here but I can’t imagine they were running “dark and quiet” to quote an old movie.

    • 26Limabeans says:

      Not to mention the giant steering wheel.
      Seems there is always a bunch of people standing around it. Or is that just in the movies.

    • thebesig says:

      The folks that you talk about are the Operations Specialists in Combat Information Center (Ship’s Operational TOC). Reports of the merchant ship, including course, speed, and closest point of approach (and time of CPA) were passed up to the bridge as soon as a good track was obtained. That’s usually after the third good mark on the radar contact during manual plotting.

      If the CPA came within a certain range to the ship, an avoiding course was also passed to the ship… All before the ship in question appeared on the visual horizon.

      What they’ve released so far, regarding these incidents, are just the tip of the iceberg regarding the problems that lead to these two collisions.

  13. Veritas Omnia Vincit says:

    I’m not a Navy guy…I was 11B, just a dumb grunt.

    I have some Navy friends though and some current Navy personnel…I’m getting some of this third hand, but it’s my understanding that we have some vessels that are operating with only a percentage of the crew that would normally be required to operate the vessel under optimal conditions.

    In the Army and worse in the NG when I got there we had some units that were quite understrength. It meant that everyone was doing far more than would normally be expected or required and oddly enough that pushed the accident rate and failure rate of some of our people and equipment to a higher rate than would normally be expected.

    If this was the case, it’s not at all an excuse for what happened but it could speak directly to a systemic wide spread issue that is being avoided simply because lack of manpower with increased mission load isn’t a politically exciting field of discourse. It is however a serious issue with respect to readiness and capability.

    This could prove quite interesting, I do believe the Negligent Homicide is an over reach and as others have pointed out if the defense provides evidence that these are officers following a Navy wide training and operational “norm” it will be quite hard to prove them guilty of much of anything.

    • luddite4change says:

      This all comes down to pressure over years to reduce crew size. If I have 80% qualification and 30 officers on a ship I can run the mandatory watches (bridge and engineering) and train new personnel without burning folks out (24 qual’d folks pulling watch training 6).

      If I only have 20 officers, I’m down to 16 officers pulling the same number of mandatory stations while training 4). Something has to give.

  14. 3E9 says:

    I think the Negligent Homicide is way over the top and will probably be dropped in a plea agreement if they can come to one. As far as what caused this, simplistic answer for me is sequestration and manpower reductions.Every excuse/reason I’ve heard from the Navy for this is the same thing the Air Force have been saying ever since the draw down 2012-2014. This situation didn’t happen overnight, and to quote our MAJCOM 4 star last year, “no one can tell us how the hell we fix what’s broken now.”

  15. Jeff LPH 3, 63-66 says:

    Anyone out there hear anything about basic seaman ship/navigation training starting to go down the tubes around twenty years ago due to financial cuts.

  16. AW1Ed says:

    U.S. Navy’s top surface warfare officer to step down.

    “The U.S. Navy’s top surface warfare officer is expected to step down this week under pressure ahead of a forthcoming recommendation that he be relieved, the latest fallout from a string of accidents in the Pacific in 2017 that claimed the lives of 17 sailors at sea.

    Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden is expected to send a letter this week stepping down as the head of Naval Surface Force Pacific, according to sources who spoke to Defense News on condition of anonymity.”

    Not going to get that fourth star; he’ll just have to struggle by on O-8 retirement pay.

  17. MCPO NYC USN Ret. says:

    The haz vessel charge is easy to articulate and will be proved. Therefore, considering death did occur neg homicide is appropriate.

    It will be ugly as Hondo said, however the pain of these proceedings will be deserved for all those who failed to lead and take action to prevent the collisions.

  18. sj says:

    I’ll just sit in my barco lounger with my scotch and observe. I wasn’t there. I still kick myself in the ass because I let one of my Lt’s take down sandbags at TAC forward in Viet of the Nam the night before TET. He got mortar’ed and Evac’d. Never knew what ended up. My bad for stopping that.

  19. Reddevil says:

    I knownigh optempo has a lot to do with this, but The Navy doesn’t seem to have taken the steps necessary to mitigate it. I can’t help but think of discussions here from December regarding the Navy’s plans to revamp enlisted training to have more of a lifelong learning approach.

    Of all the services, arguably the Army has had the highest optempo for the last 15years. As a result, especially during the surge and a few years after, we had an issue with NCOs and officers that had a lot of combat experience and had been promoted, but had not been to PME for their current grade.

    We were deferring education for operational reasons. The Patch Chart dominated planning. Ironically, these same guys that were indispensable to their units did not fare well on the various separation boards for not having met training and education gates.

    There were major problems in FA and Armor units where the NCOs had been on so many non standard deployments that the core skills of their MOS- especially tank, artillery, and Bradley gunnery- had atrophied.

    Officers were in the same boat. We have a generation of leaders who fought from fixed bases- they understand COIN, but they’ve lost the maneuver warfare skills as well as logistical management, how to plan and assess training, etc.

    The solution was to get guys to school. It was painful, and it took SMA and CSA level emphasis to make it happen. Guys were peeled away from their units long enough to get to school. They came back better, and made their units better.

    The lesson learned was you can’t mortgage your future for today.

    How much the Navy’s lack of emphasis on formal schooling had to do with this.

  20. Frank says:

    And, meanwhile, Hillary still escapes trial for her “extreme carelessness.”
    There will always be bumps when our warships are manned (with some less-embarrassing girlie help) by kids led by the chronically underpaid.
    Political Correctness just made the probs worse

  21. Deckie says:

    Final line on every set of night orders I ever signed in my life… “Call me if needed, or in doubt.” One Captain even wrote in, “I am your cheapest insurance policy.”

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