Safety: USS Fitzgerald Collision

A Cole with No Explosives?

USS Fitzgerald

This past weekend, the USS Fitzgerald, a Burke class, Aegis equipped vessel, was struck in a t-bone type accident by a large cargo carrier off Japan during night operations; seven sailors were killed.

Ship collisions are hardly rare but a t-bone is, especially involving a naval vessel on patrol.

Most collisions are eliding incidents where parallel vessels merge due in part to the complex behavior of large ships moving in close proximity affected by wind, currents and fluid dynamics.

Large vessels have tools to both detect and avoid other vessels including radar and automatic information systems (AIS).

AIS shows the position, course and speed for ships within range as well as broadcasting the same information.

AIS tracking display

There will be several investigations including by the US Coast Guard.

They would know something about a t-bone.

In September of 2014, Coast Guard cutter Key Largo rammed and sank a fishing vessel off Puerto Rico at 6:35 in the morning.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the likely cause of the Key Largo incident was that the sole officer on the bridge fell asleep.

As importantly, the report noted that the officer knew he was unfit for duty because of fatigue but failed to act on his conclusion.

Situational Awareness

In the Key Largo case a second bridge officer was absent doing other duties when the ramming occurred. They would have been both a second set of eyes and a hinderance to falling asleep while standing watch.

The Fitzgerald studies will look at staffing, work/rest schedules and bridge activities leading up to the event.

They will also determine how the bridge crew was deployed to maintain an effective lookout.

This incident is an unpleasant reminder of the USS Cole tragedy and the need for warships to be ever vigilant to avoid being rammed or assailed.

While the Cole was not underway when attacked, a smaller vessel took a heavy toll when they came alongside.

It’s also a potent reminder that operating in dynamic environments requires non-stop, tip-top team vigilance.

USS Cole under tow

Remember the Cole




1 Comment

  • Ageless Yankee says:

    A junior officer that says he is too tired to stand watch without some very special circumstances will be viewed as a slacker by the other watch standers who are equally exhausted. It will also be viewed unfavorably by the CO who writes the JO’s fitness report.

    During Vietnam, my ship (an oiler) was engaged in refueling operations for 20+ hours. When we wrapped it up around 2330, I went on watch for four more hours even though I was stupid dead on my feet.

    On the three ships I was on, I can only remember one officer who was temporarily removed from the watch bill for health reasons. He had a very good reason, but there were still complaints in the wardroom about his not standing watch.

    Incidentally, you’re barking up the wrong tree when you look at crew fatigue as a possible factor. Look at the collision marks on the Fitzgerald. The ship was DIY when it was hit. It’s telling that the cargo ship tracks show that it circled around the Fitzgerald to strike them on the starboard side – a situation in which the Fitzgerald would be the burdened vessel.

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