Lieutenant junior grade Sarah B. Coppock pleaded guilty on a single criminal charge for her role in the collision between the warship USS Fitzgerald and the container ship ‘ACX Crystal’ off Japan in June 2017, that claimed the lives of seven US navy sailors. She was sentenced to three months reduced pay and was issued a punitive reprimand.
Coppock was the officer of the deck at the time of the collision and pleaded guilty to one violation of Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, admitting her actions were partially responsible for the deaths of the sailors, according to USNI news.
In particular, Coppock admitted that she violated ship commander Cmdr. Bryce Benson’s standing orders several times during the overnight transit off the coast of Japan, violated Coast Guard navigation rules, did not communicate effectively with the watch standers in the Combat Information Center, did not operate safely in a high-density traffic condition and did not alert the crew ahead of a collision.
However, both the prosecutors and defense attorneys referred to a difficult operating environment onboard. At the time of the incident, the malfunctioning SPS-73 bridge radar was tracking more than 200 surface tracks – a mix of large merchant ships and fishing vessels near the Japanese coast. Coppock was under orders for the ship to cross a busy merchant shipping lane, that wasn’t labeled on the charts provided by the navigation team. She was also ordered to keep the ship moving at a high-rate of speed during the transit – 20 to 22 knots, which lowered the time the crew could react to ships around them.
Coppock said she didn’t rely enough on the officers on watch in the ship’s combat information center (CIC) to help keep track of the surface contacts as a back up to her crew on the bridge. Prosecutors and defense attorneys noted that the conditions aboard Fitzgerald made the collision more likely.
Furthermore, the US navy’s investigation report revealed that the ship had been without a chief quartermaster for two years before the collision, and the SPS-73 navigation radar was unreliable, while the watch stander in the CIC who operated the SPS-67 search and surveillance radar was unfamiliar with the system. However, the report noted that no single person could be defined as fully responsible.
According to USNI news, the charge Coppock faced on Tuesday as part of the plea agreement was less severe than charges announced by the Navy in January, in which Coppock and two other unidentified junior officers on Fitzgerald faced several charges including negligent homicide and hazarding a vessel.
The two watchstanders who were in the CIC during the collision will face a judge on Wednesday for preliminary hearings on criminal charges for their roles in the collision that include hazarding a vessel and negligence.
The Fitzgerald’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, is expected to face serious charges of hazarding a vessel, dereliction of duty and negligent homicide.