Fitzgerald, McCain commanders face criminal charges in deadly crashes
By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 16, 2018
FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — The former commanders of the two Navy destroyers involved in separate crashes last year that killed 17 sailors will face charges of negligent homicide, the Navy said Tuesday.
Cmdr. Bryce Benson, who commanded the USS Fitzgerald, and Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, former commander of the USS John S. McCain, are also being charged with dereliction of duty and “hazarding a vessel,” a Navy statement said.
Two lieutenants and one lieutenant junior grade from the Fitzgerald are facing similar charges. The Navy did not name those officers being charged.
In addition, one charge of dereliction of duty was preferred and is pending referral to a forum for a chief petty officer who was aboard the McCain.
The decision to seek charges was made by Adm. Frank Caldwell, who was designated as the Consolidated Disposition Authority last year by Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations.
“Additional administrative actions are being conducted for members of both crews including non-judicial punishment for four Fitzgerald and four John S. McCain crewmembers,” the Navy said.
Last year was a disastrous one for the Navy.
On Jan. 31, the USS Antietam ran aground near Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, and leaked more than 1,000 gallons of hydraulic fluid into Tokyo Bay. The ship’s commanding officer was relieved of command in March.
The USS Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing boat in May near the east coast of the Korean peninsula.
No one was injured in those incidents.
Then, on June 17, the Fitzgerald crashed into a civilian merchant ship about 60 miles southwest of Yokosuka, killing seven sailors. The ship’s commanding officer, executive officer and command master chief were relieved two months later.
On Aug. 21, the McCain collided with an oil tanker near Singapore, leaving 10 sailors dead.
In September, the Navy relieved Task Force 70 commander Rear Adm. Charles Williams and Destroyer Squadron 15 commander Capt. Jeffrey Bennett due to loss of confidence.
The Navy began a comprehensive review of its training, manning and procedures after the two deadly crashes. The review’s many recommendations included improving training on seamanship, navigational skills and equipment aboard ships, as well as reducing fatigue and stress among sailors and officers.
During a news conference in November, Richardson said the Fitzgerald and McCain collisions were “preventable.”
“The causes for the collisions included a failure to plan for safety, failure to adhere to sound navigational practices, failure to execute basic watch-standing principles, failure to properly use available navigation tools, failure to respond deliberately and effectively when in extremist of collision, a loss of situational awareness and high traffic density, failure to follow the international rules of the road and for John S. McCain, insufficient knowledge and proficiency of the ship’s steering system.”
The Navy’s investigative report said that many of the decisions leading to the Fitzgerald crash were the result of poor judgment and decision-making by the commanding officer.
“That said, no single person bears full responsibility for this incident. The crew was unprepared for the situation in which they found themselves through a lack of preparation, ineffective command and control, and deficiencies in training and preparations for navigation," the report said.