USS Fitzgerald: Investigate First, Blame Later


Published Jun 22, 2017 5:24 PM by Capt. Matt Phillips

In the wake of the Fitzgerald-Crystal collision, many have taken to the internet to examine, theorize or vent about what may have happened that night. Many of these posts are well intentioned, but some self-righteous assertions are without fact and rely on experiences that are decades old. These reflections show a lack of respect for not only the investigation process, but also the sailors who died in service to their country and the family, friends and shipmates who are mourning them.

I am not privy to what happened that night, or to what direction the investigation has taken. In my Navy career of more than 20 years, I have been privileged to serve more than 11 years at sea on five different ships, including command of an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, the same ship type as USS Fitzgerald. While those 18 months represented the culmination of my naval career, the most humbling part of my tour was training the eager young professionals around me whose careers were just starting out. They were dedicated professionals, just as the men and women of Fitzgerald are, and our men and women at sea deserve more respect and less judgment than what has been displayed on some sites.


One writer recently theorized that the cause of the accident was a lack of communication from the Navy ship. Civilian mariners that I have served and trained with often complain that the U.S. Navy over-communicates. I have never heard a tale of under-communicating between a U.S. Navy ship and the merchants around them. I have attempted to contact ships by radio, by flashing light and by Iridium phone. In every case, we communicated successfully enough to clear up a confusing situation and steam safely to our destination. I have no doubt that the captain and crew of Fitzgerald would have stopped at nothing to communicate with the Crystal if they believed it was needed.

Over the years, merchant ships have cut costs by reducing manpower and relying on automation to do much of the work at sea. On the bridge of my ship, I experienced merchant vessels which did not respond to initial or repeated radio calls. Indeed, sometimes 20-30 minutes passed before someone could be hailed on the radio, and on occasion, they never responded.

Language barrier?

As English is the official international language at sea, bridge watchstanders are required to speak English and get appropriate English speaking assistance if needed. As a bridge watchstander, I have witnessed careful communication with merchants who clearly did not speak strong English. My experience around the world is that communication with local fishing boats, dhows and sailboats can be problematic, but that professional merchant vessels, like the Crystal, are able to communicate effectively.

Rule 5

The Navy and individual merchant ships interpret Rule 5 differently: “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper lookout by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.” In the U.S. Navy, we interpret this conservatively, and generally there are a dozen people contributing to a proper lookout, armed with binoculars, night vision devices, remote cameras and radar systems. A merchant vessel might interpret Rule 5 differently and thus have one lone watch stander, who might have left the bridge to wake up his relief, make coffee, or enter data in a log.

The reliance on automation as a substitute for manpower also leaves open the possibility that the only deck watch stander on the merchant vessel at 1:30 in the morning was distracted by the myriad of other tasks expected of him or her. The ACX Crystal is reported to have a crew size of twenty when the incident occurred. Destroyers, however, typically have a crew of nearly three hundred sailors in order to provide robust manning of watchstations.

Generalist vs. Specialist

One writer’s recent assertion that U.S. Navy officers are inexperienced is without merit. For most junior officers, time at sea is plentiful. As with merchant mariners, junior officers spend part of every day at sea on the bridge practicing their trade, including many complex ship handling situations like underway replenishment and group formation steaming, for which there is no merchant equivalent. Engineering watches do not come until later, and by the time a surface warfare officer reaches command, his experience at sea is significant.

Rule 8f

Most mariners writing about this incident eventually come to rule 8f, but it bears repeating, in that both vessels are obligated to take action to avoid collision. Both captains will probably be held responsible as required by law. Yet some civilian mariner articles seem to absolve the captain and crew of the Crystal, placing sole blame on the Fitzgerald with nothing more than their own anecdotal experience and preconceived notions.

The burden of command

Perhaps the most offensive articles I have read contain a willingness to impugn Fitzgerald’s commanding officer while giving an apparent free pass to the master of Crystal. They assert that somehow either the captain or crew of Fitzgerald were derelict in their duties because the CO was not on the bridge at the time of the collision. One article reads: “He remained in his cabin where he was injured during the collision. Did the OOD fail to call him up to the bridge for help managing the situation? Did he ignore the OOD’s call for help? Or, like the Exxon Valdez, did the bridge team not realize they were in trouble until it was too late?” Yet that author poses none of the same questions for the captain of the Crystal.

Also ignored is the Crystal’s apparent delay in the moral and legal obligation to render assistance to fellow mariners at sea. According to the New York Times, the merchant vessel sailed almost 10 miles away before returning to investigate the source of the collision, and waited almost an hour before reporting the collision to local Japanese authorities. This hesitation to report a collision delayed any assistance the Fitzgerald might have needed. Did the Crystal’s delay in reporting prevent the rescue of any of our deceased shipmates? To their credit, the men and women of Fitzgerald responded immediately to the damage and displayed the character that makes the U.S. Navy the most powerful navy in the world.

The preventable death of any sailor is tragic. In our 200 year history, the U.S. Navy has come to the aid of thousands of mariners both by obligation and by moral conscience. I can personally recall dozens of times that U.S. Navy ships left station to render aid to civilian mariners, whether for a medical evacuation, damage control support, or a pirate attack. Going to sea is a bond that few share. Casting blame without facts, breaks that bond. Both captains will live with this incident for the rest of their personal and professional lives. Since none of us are privy to the investigation, concluding that either is at fault from the safety of our living rooms – without the benefit of the investigation report – is irresponsible.

As seagoing professionals, we will mourn the loss of fellow mariners and respect the grieving of a crew. A crew led by its Captain, until such time as the Navy relieves him. We owe it to the memory of those lost to learn from these mistakes, and it may well be that watchstanders on Fitzgerald are held accountable. I pass no judgment here either way as the investigators have only begun to dig through the data. But to draw a conclusion at the expense of the U.S. Navy, especially in a void of factual information, is a clear demonstration that some recent blog authors have little true understanding of the business in which they professes to be an expert.

Capt. Matt Phillips is a career Surface Warfare Officer currently stationed at the Pentagon. Follow him on Twitter @mattsbooks. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the views of the United States Navy. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.