The collision occurred shortly after the USS Fitzgerald, with 315 people onboard, departed its homeport of Yokosuka, Japan, bound for Philippines, on 17 June 2017. The incident attracted significant media attention as 7 US Navy sailors lost their lives.

The Fitzgerald was traveling southbound at about 22 knots in the bay of Sagami Nada off Japan’s Honshu Island, while the Philippine-flag, container ship ACX Crystal with 21 people onboard, was traveling east-northeast at about 18.5 knots in the bay, headed to Tokyo, from Nagoya, Japan.

Neither vessel radioed the other as the distance between the ships continuously decreased.

Actions taken by watch officers to avoid impact seconds before the collision were too late and the ships collided.

Seven Fitzgerald crew members died in the accident, and three others suffered serious injuries. There were no injuries aboard the ACX Crystal. The destroyer sustained extensive damage to its forward starboard side and the ACX Crystal sustained damage to its bow.

The NTSB was the lead federal agency for the investigation and delegated its authority to the US Coast Guard to gather documents and perform interviews on behalf of the NTSB. Official findings suggest the following safety issues:

  • the insufficient training of the Fitzgerald’s crew;
  • Fitzgerald crew fatigue;
  • the practice of US Navy vessels to not broadcast automatic identification system signals;
  • failure of both ships’ crews to take actions in accordance with the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea;
  • insufficient oversight and directive by the U.S. Navy;
  • the commanding officer’s inadequate assessment of the transit route’s hazards; and
  • the commanding officer’s decision to not augment bridge watchstanding personnel with a more experienced officer.

See also: USS Fitzgerald deadly collision: Poor seamanship in the spotlight

In its report, the NTSB says the Fitzgerald’s bridge team’s failure to take early and substantial action to avoid collision, as the give-way vessel in a crossing situation, is the probable cause for the collision.

The NTSB also says ineffective communication and cooperation among the crew on the Fitzgerald’s bridge and combat information center, coupled with the commanding officer’s insufficient planning for the hazards of the destroyer’s intended transit, contributed to the collision.

Meanwhile, the ACX Crystal’s watch officer’s lack of early detection of the Fitzgerald and insufficient actions to avoid collision, once in doubt of the destroyer’s intentions, also contributed to the collision.

This tragedy highlights the importance of keeping a vigilant watch, determining the risk of collision, and the role of the Automatic Identification System. If you are in doubt of another vessel’s intentions, you need to use proper sound and visual signals, and then take early and effective action to avoid a collision,

...said Morgan Turrell, Acting Director of the NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety.

Recommendations

As a result of its investigation, the NTSB issued three safety recommendations to the Navy and one to Sea Quest Management Inc., the operator of the ACX Crystal.

Two safety recommendations issued to the Navy call for review and revision of fleetwide training and qualification requirements for officers of the deck related to the collision regulations, as well as review and revision of bridge resource management training.

The third recommendation to the Navy seeks the broadcast of AIS information when in the vicinity of commercial vessel traffic, at all times, unless such broadcast could compromise tactical operations.

Finally, the safety recommendation issued to Sea Quest Management Inc., seeks additional training for navigation officers on collision avoidance regulations, radar and automatic radar plotting aids.