Navy To File Charges Against Ship Commanders For Collisions That Killed 17

WASHINGTON (CBS News) — The Navy says it is filing negligent homicide charges against the commanders of two ships involved in fatal collisions last year. The charges are to be presented at what the Navy calls an Article 32 hearing to determine whether the accused will be court-martialed.

The charges include negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and hazarding a vessel.

The actions, including charges against several lower-ranking officers, were announced Tuesday by the Navy’s chief spokesman, Capt. Greg Hicks.

Hicks says the decision to file charges was made by Adm. Frank Caldwell, head of the Navy’s nuclear reactors program, who reviewed evidence of what caused the collisions. The USS Fitzgerald collided with a commercial ship in waters off Japan in June, killing seven sailors. Ten sailors were killed when the USS John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker in Southeast Asia in August.

During hearings last year before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the collisions, Navy leaders publicly acknowledged their failure to prevent the collisions.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) Defense Capabilities and Management team director John Pendleton testified that the Navy needed to address serious maintenance and training deficiencies.

“How in the world does a billion-dollar destroyer not know that there’s a freighter closing in on it?” demanded a clearly frustrated Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), adding that other ships can detect a “flock of seagulls.”

“I think most Americans find these crashes incomprehensible,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

U.S. Navy report released in November concluded that the two collisions in the Pacific were avoidable.

The Navy said the collision between the Fitzgerald and the Philippine-flagged ACX Crystal was the result of an “accumulation of smaller errors over time” which led to “a lack of adherence to sound navigational practices.”

“Specifically, Fitzgerald’s watch teams disregarded established norms of basic contact management and, more importantly, leadership failed to adhere to well-established protocols put in place to prevent collisions,” the Navy said.

The ship’s captain, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, was relieved of duty as were two other senior officers, Cmdr. Sean Babbitt and Master Chief Petty Officer Brice Baldwin.

As for the McCain collision, the Navy said a “major contributing factor” was what it called a “sub-standard level of knowledge” for operating the ship control console.