The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) returns to Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka following a collision with a merchant vessel while operating southwest of Yokosuka, Japan. (MC1 Peter Burghart/U.S. Navy)

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) returns to Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka following a collision with a merchant vessel while operating southwest of Yokosuka, Japan. (MC1 Peter Burghart/U.S. Navy)

The headline shocked the close-knit world of the surface Navy: Seven sailors aboard the destroyer USS Fitzgerald were killed, and other crew members injured, when the warship collided with a cargo vessel off Japan.

As the Navy family grieves, both it and the wider world are asking the same question: How did this happen?

The short answer is that no one knows — yet. The official inquiries into what led up to the encounter could take months or more. The Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard both likely will eventually issue reports that describe what happened and could make recommendations for preventing another such accident.

“I will not speculate on how long these investigations will last,” said Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander of the Navy’s 7th Fleet. The Fitzgerald and the other ships of Destroyer Squadron 15, based outside Tokyo, fall under his authority.

There are clues, however, that explain how something like the Fitzgerald’s collision could happen, including the photographs of the ships involved, navigation data about the container ship ACX Crystal, and the experience the Navy has had with past mishaps.

The $1.8-billion Fitzgerald is one of the most modern and technologically advanced warships afloat, capable of using its powerful sensors to look up into space, if necessary, and reach up to hit targets there with its battery of missiles.

The destroyer still has a human crew, however, most of which was likely asleep at around 2:30 a.m. local time when it collided with the Crystal. There was no moon over the waters south of Tokyo Bay, according to local accounts, and the channel there is frequently crowded with ships on their way into and out of the Japanese capital. Vessels of all sizes sail to other ports in Asia or head east into the vast Pacific.

Sailors in the Fitzgerald’s combat information center and on its bridge are responsible for using the ship’s sensors to plot the location of each one, as well as the directions they’re headed and the speed at which they’re sailing. Officers and sailors must at all times keep what the Navy calls good “situational awareness” about not only what their own ship is doing, but about what might be ahead in the next patch of ocean where the Fitzgerald wants to sail.

In 2012 a sibling of the Fitzgerald, the destroyer USS Porter, was in a congested, high-traffic seaway called the Strait of Hormuz — the ribbon of water that connects the Persian Gulf with the Arabian Sea — when it collided with an oil tanker. The Navy’s investigation later found that as sailors tried to keep track of the traffic all around them, including those ships headed the other direction, they lost focus on their own immediate course ahead.

When the tanker Otowasan suddenly loomed ahead, Cmdr. Martin Arriola ordered the Porter to turn left to cross ahead of the huge other ship to avoid a head-on crash. But he hadn’t done so with enough time, and not even ordering full speed at the last minute could get the destroyer safely clear. The Otowasan hit the Porter along its right — or starboard — side, in a location on the ship very near where the ACX Crystal hit the Fitzgerald early Saturday.

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SOURCE: PHILIP EWING 
NPR