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"Tragedy beyond words" was preventable accident

Navy issues final report on Rigsby collision

The USS Fitzgerald was on a potential collision course with not one but three container vessels in the waters off the coast of Japan on the night it was struck by the ACX Crystal, killing Fluvanna native Dakota Rigsby and six other sailors.

In a scathing final report released by the Navy Nov. 1, investigators cited poor training, poor communication, and fatigue as the major causes of the June 17 collision.

According to the report, the Fitzgerald had spent a long day on training maneuvers before heading back to its base in Yokosuka, Japan. Commander Bryce Benson and Executive Officer Sean Babbitt left the bridge for the night at around 10 p.m. June 16, leaving navigation to the officer of the deck and watch team.

Approximately 30 minutes before the collision, the Fitzgerald was rapidly approaching three container ships beginning an eastward turn away from the coast, putting them in what is called a “crossing situation.”

Under the International Rules of the Nautical Road, the Fitzgerald was “obliged to take maneuvering action to remain clear of the other three,” but instead continued on its southbound course at a speed of about 20 knots, or 23 miles per hour. 

It was only in the final minute before the Crystal’s bulbous bow made contact that the Fitzgerald sped up and pulled hard to the left in an effort to avoid the blow.

The report mentioned many things that went wrong aboard the Fitzgerald in that final half hour. The watch team on the bridge didn’t know the rules of navigation or the local Vessel Traffic Separation Scheme and didn’t have their radars properly calibrated. Watchstanders on deck were standing on the port side, while the oncoming traffic was on the starboard. The Command Information Center crew failed to communicate with the bridge crew and the junior bridge crew did not communicate effectively with the senior officer.

Officials also faulted the officer of the deck for not recognizing the risk of the collision, not communicating with the commander, not sounding an alarm, and not communicating with the Crystal via bridge-to-bridge radio.

This cascade of problems stemmed from what the Navy sees as a failure of leadership from the senior command staff. While the report gave no details, it mentioned that the Fitzgerald was involved in a “near-collision” just a month before the deadly crash, but the commander and his team did not seem to take any action to improve the crew’s training or performance.

Benson, Babbitt, and Command Master Chief Brice Baldwin were “permanently detached” from the Fitzgerald in August and are expected to face further disciplinary action.     

“The loss of seven shipmates is a tragedy beyond words,” the report concluded, “and a reminder of dangers inherent in the mission of every ship and sailor.”