U.S. Navy ship collisions were avoidable, report finds

In this U.S. Navy handout image, damage to the port side of the USS John S. McCain is visible as the guided-missile destroyer steers toward Changi Naval Base in Singapore following a collision with the merchant vessel Alnic MC while underway east of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore on Aug. 21, 2017.

U.S. Navy

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Navy report released Wednesday concluded that two deadly ship collisions in the Pacific earlier this year were avoidable.

It said the collisions, which killed a combined total of 17 sailors, resulted from widespread failures by the crews and commanders who didn't recognize and respond to unfolding emergencies quickly. Navy leaders publicly acknowledged those failings in a congressional hearing last month.

"We must do better," Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said in a statement. "We are a Navy that learns from mistakes and the Navy is firmly committed to doing everything possible to prevent an accident like this from happening again."

In June, the USS Fitzgerald and a container ship collided off the coast of Japan, and the USS John S. McCain and a merchant vessel collided near Singapore in August.

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.

"In particular, McCain's commanding officer disregarded recommendations from his executive officer, navigator and senior watch officer to set sea and anchor watch teams in a timely fashion to ensure the safe and effective operation of the ship," the Navy said.

In October, the ship's commander and executive officer, Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez and Cmdr. Jessie L. Sanchez respectively, were reassigned.

As a result of the two deadly accidents, the 7th Fleet commander, three-star Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, was fired.

On Capitol Hill Wednesday, Senate Armed Services Chair John McCain, R-Arizona, blamed Congress and ongoing budget constraints for the lack of readiness detailed in the report, CBS News' Alan He reports.

"That's this lack of accountability of Congress to the men and women who are serving, and you may quote me: It's a disgrace," McCain said in reaction to the report.

A critical report scheduled to be released Thursday calls for about 60 recommended improvements that range from improved training on seamanship, navigation and the use of ship equipment to more basic changes to increase sleep and stress management for sailors.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the report ahead of its release.