USS Fitzgerald collided with the container ship 'ACX Crystal' off Japan in June 2017, killing seven US navy sailors and opening internal discussions regarding potential training and compliance deficiencies of the US navy crews.
Lt. Natalie Combs, the tactical action officer, and Lt. Irian Woodley, the surface warfare coordinator, were both on duty in the windowless combat information in the warship on early morning of June 17, as the ship moved southwest from Japan.
As informed, shortly after crossing into the busy channel, 'ACX Crystal' popped up on the CIC’s commercial ship automatic identification system dangerously close to Fitzgerald. The container ship was bearing down on the warship, bow pointed toward the middle of the warship, USNI noted.
Woodley ordered the camera used to spot targets for the ship’s 5-inch gun toward the bearing of Crystal. Fire Controlman Second Class Ashton Cato, who manned the camera, saw the flared bow of the ship fill up his monitor just seconds before the fatal crash.
Prosecutors based the criminal negligence evidence on the fact that Woodley and Combs did not know the ship was at risk from the container ship, did not see other nearby contacts and were not in contact with the bridge crew, despite the role of sailors in the CIC is to assist the bridge watch in understanding the surface picture around the ship.
Last week, Lieutenant junior grade Sarah B. Coppock pleaded guilty on a single criminal charge for her role in the collision, in terms of not communicating effectively with the watchstanders in the Combat Information Center, and she was sentenced to three months reduced pay and was issued a punitive reprimand.
However, part of the reason the picture was muddy was the radar had been set to a long-range so-called “long pulse” mode that made contacts close to the ship difficult to see. The setting couldn’t be directly adjusted from CIC, and Fort’s investigation found there was no effort to contact the ship’s electronics technicians to adjust the radar picture.
Previous testimonies have indicated insufficient systems, broken equipment and lapses in crew training, were often encountered on the ship. During the hearing, the defense and prosecutors agreed on the facts of the collision, but were split on where to place the blame. On the same context, US navy's investigation report had pointed out that no single person could bear full responsibility for this incident.
Prosecutors said Combs and Woodley shared the blame with executive officer Babbitt and then-ship’s commander Cmdr. Bryce Benson – who faces his own Article 32 hearing on similar charges later this month.