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Navy Names Former Destroyer Commander to Lead USS Fitzgerald Collision Investigation

USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) returns to Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka following a collision with a merchant vessel while operating southwest of Yokosuka, Japan. US Navy Photo

CORRECTION: Due to a mistake in a Navy release, Rear Adm. Brian Fort’s job in the service was misstated in a previous version of this post. Fort is the commander of Navy Region Hawaii and commander of Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific, not the Middle Atlantic. 

An experienced surface warfare officer will lead the U.S. Navy’s investigation into the collision of USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and a merchant ship, according to an announcement released on Friday by U.S. 7th Fleet.

Rear Adm. Brian Fort, formerly the commander of USS Gonzalez (DDG-66) and Destroyer Squadron 26, will head up the Navy’s Manual of the Judge Advocate General (JAGMAN) into the circumstances of the June 17, 2017, collision between the guided-missile destroyer and the Philippine-flagged container ship ACX Crystal, according to the news release.

His job will be to guide the investigators that are collecting data from the ship, interviewing the crew and evaluating countless other details, in an effort to create the Navy’s case to determine blame for the incident in which seven sailors were killed.

Rear Admiral Brian P. Fort, commander of Navy Region Hawaii and commander of Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific. US Navy Photo

Last week, U.S. 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin promised a flag-led investigation into the collision that occurred off the coast of Japan.

While there are several ongoing investigations by U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, Japanese authorities and insurance companies into the collision, the JAGMAN will be one of the few that will be available for public scrutiny. A parallel U.S. Navy safety investigation will likely not be released to the public.

“The purpose of a JAGMAN investigation is to discover facts pertaining to an occurrence, such as an aviation, ground or maritime mishap, in order to identify failures in doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, [standard operating procedures], etc. and also to assist in affixing blame and accountability,” Rob “Butch” Bracknell, a former Marine and military lawyer told USNI News on Friday.
“The findings of a JAGMAN can lead to disciplinary action against servicemembers and civilian employees or the termination of contracts. A safety investigation is categorically different: the purpose of the investigation is only to find out what went wrong and why.”

Fort, who was promoted to flag rank earlier this year, is currently serving as the commander of Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific, according to the notice of his promotion in late May.

Few details have emerged on the causes of the collision between Fitzgerald and Crystal as Navy investigators have kept initial findings close, even to leadership in the service. However, Japanese authorities have created an operational theory that the crew of Crystal may not have noticed the initial collision due to the ship being on autopilot at the time of impact, USNI News reported this week.

The Navy investigation will determine the culpability of the crew and the commander of the ship, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, and provide recommendations for corrective action and punishment, if required.

Benson was in his stateroom at the time of the collision, according to several different accounts of the incident that have emerged over the last several days. While Navy leadership has issued statements that no determinations of responsibility have been formed yet, similar incidents have almost always placed the bulk of the blame on the commander of the warship for any lapses of his or her crew.

  • NavySubNuke

    There are a number of questions to be answered here – in my mind chief among them is how the Crystal got so close to the ship and yet the CO was still in his rack. That seems to suggest that the bridge team never viewed themselves as being in distress – at least until the collision occurred.
    It will certainly be an interesting and closely watched investigation – good luck Admiral.

    • 1jbradt

      Amen! I Agree 200%, Destroyer radars jammed?

      • There are no indications that any of the sensors were jammed.

      • AmPatriotSmith

        Where did you come up with that idea?

        • grandpabluewater

          You talkin to me?

    • OldSaltUSNR

      Yep, agreed. It’s not that errors don’t occur, or perhaps in this case, a “forced error” due to the unprofessional navigation of the Crystal, but REDUNDANCY should have prevented this.

      If you want to ask yourself “why didn’t the look out see the cargo ship’s navigation lights bearing down the the ship”, there’s are several understandable explanations for that. If you ask “why didn’t the technology detect and warn the Fitz’s bridge crew?” Things happen there too, e.g. radar clutter, weather, mechanical problems, etc.. But there are also two bridge watchstanders (OOD/JOOD), and CIC tracking contacts. How in the world did all of these redundant systems and procedures fail? New, “stealth” Cargo ships?

      I agree that they likely never knew it was coming, knew that it was anywhere nearby. I don’t know what the standing orders were, but 2.0NM to 5NM would be a common distance a Navy C.O. would allow any vessel to approach his ship without being notified. He would have likely been on the bridge if they knew this ship was near and CBDR. Was the X.O. on the bridge?

      Unfortunately, we’re not likely to know the full story for at least a year, and the “curiosity” factor will have most of us wondering about this until then. (We don’t like unsolved mysteries.)

      • MarlineSpikeMate

        “due to the unprofessional navigation of the Crystal”
        – Based on what? She collided at the 1630 (UTC) mark, and appears to have made a hard right turn and slowing according to AIS track, eventually to return to the area. A look at the live AIS recording over other traffic further clears up the following courses after the collision. They turn slightly to starboard to go around the Bai Chay Bridge. They wait for Kiso3 to clear their path and then turn 180 around the Bai Chay Bridge and return to the area of the collision. This is no secret or speculation, but observable via the Terr-AIS tracker.

        1619 – 1627: SPD: ~18.4kts, Course: 070.
        1630 (UTC): SPD: 17.3kts, Course: 088 (APRX Time of IMPACT)
        1633: SPD: 11.2kts, Course: 135

        • OldSaltUSNR

          Based upon the likely fact that the bridge was unoccupied and the ship on autopilot until at least 30 minutes AFTER the collision in a busy sea lane in the middle of the night, and based on the conjecture that the Crystal was overtaking from abaft the starboard side. Regardless of where it’s plot puts that ship at crossing, it’s STILL burdened, and simply moving to starboard does not make it the privileged vessel. Both vessels, in fact, were equally burdened to avoid collision once they became CBDR, but the Crystal “iron mike” is likely not programmed to understand all of this, which is why the cargo ship is supposed to have a bridge crew 24/7. This isn’t all that speculative, and will be borne out in the investigation – guaranteed. The Fitz’s bridge crew and C.O. will still pay the price for not detecting and avoiding the “navigational hazard”, which is what the Crystal for all intents and purposes, was in that shipping channel.

          • MarlineSpikeMate

            I will address some of these issues but it seems to me you are trying to push a certain narrative of the ACX without much evidence.

            “likely fact that the bridge was unoccupied”?

            – The evidence would point to the contrary, with the immediately slow down and course change at and immediately following the collision. In fact, I would say this proofs that narrative false. Being both a merchant officer and surface warfare officer, I can tell you that it is extremely unlikely the bridge was unoccupied on the ACX, just as it is extremely unlikely the bridge team on the Fitzgerald was sleeping on watch. I presume you base your reasoning from the 30minutes turn around time, but watch the AIS overlay, and you will see the reason for the track after the collision, as I iterated above.

            When the USS Porter was found almost 100% at fault, the tanker that it collided with did not turn around after it tried to avoid the collision. Why? What assistance did the warship need that a lumbering tanker could provide. If the ship was floundering, sure. But this is not the case in either. Certainly turning around wasn’t the first priority on the ACX Chrystal, as tanks and voids were sounded, and the situation assessed. How do we know this just isn’t another Porter incident? The location of the collision on the STBD side is almost identical. Maybe a BRM breakdown on the Fitzgerald. The ACX was traveling in a strait line for at least an hour before the collision.

            “Regardless of where it’s plot puts that ship at crossing, it’s STILL burdened, and simply moving to starboard does not make it the privileged vessel”

            – Not true, and it all depends on the warships track. It very well could be a crossing situation, placing the blame on the Fitzgerald, but we don’t know their track.

            “Crystal “iron mike” is likely not programmed to understand all of this, which is why the cargo ship is supposed to have a bridge crew 24/7. This isn’t all that speculative, and will be borne out in the investigation – guaranteed.”

            – Not sure you fully understanding “iron mike” auto-pilot and auto-track. All iron mike does is keep the ships heading on a course that you tell it too, just like a helmsman. Without constant adjusting, the ship will not follow the track to make good its needed COG. Iron mike is a helmsman, and thats it. It must have a bridge team to keep it on track. Many warships today use iron mike regularly, such as LCS and Zumwalt. Of course it is not “programmed to understand all of this”. It simply steers a course.

          • OldSaltUSNR

            All good points. Part of the problem understanding the track of the Crystal is timing. It appeared to change course slightly to port just before impact. It would be interesting to know if the Crystal attempted to contact the Fitzgerald immediately after impact. That’s unusual behavior. Reporting the collision one hour later, is unusual. While SAT comms were down in Fitz, ship to ship should have been fine. The reviews I’ve read on the Crystal’s track showed erratic behavior, slowing, followed by a turn toward Tokyo. They returned to their base course and speed, BEFORE they turned towards the Fitz and before reporting the incident. That leads some to conclude it was on autopilot (which is what I called “Iron Mike” – sorry) during the event.

            You are correct, without knowing at least the Fitzgerald’s heading, we can’t be certain this was not a crossing situation. I was looking at the shipping channel, the direction Crystal was heading before it’s dogleg to port, and made some assumptions about where the Fitzgerald would have been. I don’t know for sure.

            As you said, the investigation will determine both ship tracks and cause, which will be interesting to read.

          • Scott Hanson

            “The evidence would point to the contrary, with the immediately slow down and course change at and immediately following the collision. In fact, I would say this proofs that narrative false.”

            The collision itself would provide the immediate slow down and course change.
            Ramming into other ships does tend to slow things down and knock them off course after all.

            Then you have the ship, still on autopilot.. correcting back to it’s programmed course and speed until a half hour later, when the crew finally performs a port turn to return to the scene of collision.

            Your evidence is not contrary but in fact supports the conjecture that no one was on the bridge. Or at least, no trained bridge personnel, perhaps a deckhand whose sole job was to call an officer from his stateroom if anything went amiss.

      • Key Landry

        The ship was running without navigation lights due to the nature of the contraband cargo and clandestine mission which will never be disclosed.

        • USNVO

          Why would it be running without nav lights? I mean, it is hard to disprove a conspiracy theory, but running without Nav Lights just makes you that much more conspicuous. A radar blip with merchant lighting and AIS broadcast with lighting attracts no notice, turn out the lights and everyone notices you. Back to conspiracy theory 101 for you.

        • Scott Hanson

          Key.. your tinfol hat is showing.
          Stop just “making stuff up”

        • Ray Flo

          No Nav lights but the AIS was ON. Really smart crooks

    • johne37179

      In these busy waters numerous ships will routinely pass within a couple of hundred yards of each other. The FITZ was in a holding area making slow circles while waiting to be sequenced into the flow into the harbor. The Crystal passed the FITZ and then reversed course and came back and that is when the collision occurred. This is not like at sea where the CO would routinely receive a call (in the rack or not) if a vessel comes within 10,000 yards. In these waters at night with lots of lights on the shore east and west with moving vehicles visually acquiring and tracking a vessel is a real challenge.

      • MarlineSpikeMate

        “The Crystal passed the FITZ and then reversed course and came back and that is when the collision occurred.”
        -Negative. Most reports now say it happened at the 0130 mark, then the ship returned to investigate.

        • johne37179

          That could be correct. However, that time mark doesn’t fit either with the time of the collision. The FITZ was making slow circles waiting to be sequenced into traffic, the watch on the bridge and in CIC turned over a half hour before the impact. Since the track of the FITZ is not yet available, it will be a while before we have both tracks and can plot them together.

      • NavySubNuke

        “The Crystal passed the FITZ and then reversed course and came back and that is when the collision occurred. ”
        MarlineSpikeMate has already pointed this out but I’ll chime in to second that this is no longer what is believed to have happened. As usual it sounds like the first reports after the incident were incorrect and that further data is refining the actual timeline of events.

        • johne37179

          I agree. It is not clear. If the Crystal struck the FITZ on the first inbound pass, why did she alter course to port (towards the FITZ) shortly before the impact?

          • USNVO

            Look at the AIS track on a geochart. You will note that the Crystal turned to go between the islands. It seems pretty clear the Crystal was overtaking the FITZGERALD to starboard, probably on her starboard quarter. There are reports that the master of the Crystal said they were overtaking when he was on the bridge sometime before the port turn. The Crustal either forgot about the FITZ, expected her to also turn, or the ship turned automatically and the mate didn’t realize it or recognize it would create a CBDR situation. Either way, a parallel course became a collision course and neither ship recognized it.

          • Scott Hanson

            If the actual angle of approach between the two ships is very close to the 22.5 degree abaft the beam demarcation between what is a Crossing and what is an Overtaking situation… It is highly possible that both ships considered themselves to be the Stand On vessel with the other being Give Way.

            Fitz, thinking this was an Overtake, would be the stand on.
            Crystal, thinking it is a Crossing, would consider themselves to be stand on.

            Regardless of who actually was the Stand On…. By the time it became clear that the other was not reacting as expected of the Give way.. they may have waited to late to take positive action.

      • Wardog00

        When I was OOD or JOOD on destroyers in similar circumstances the CO stayed on the bridge through the night.

        • johne37179

          I talked extensively with a DDG CO with three tours out of Yokosuka and have spent time aboard and the CO is rarely on the bridge day or night. The good CO spends time in the spaces and in his or her office and when in critical operations typically is in the CIC. The exception is when there is a pilot on board, or when actually coming into the channel or pier, when the CO may be an observer on the bridge and typically on the wing.

          • Scott Hanson

            So your “talks with a CO” trumps someone actually qualified to stand the watch…. riiight.
            Shut up keyboard sailor.

          • johne37179

            Scott, the Commanding Officer of a DDG with 25 years in the Navy, 13 of them forward deployed, who has been CHENG, XO, Navigator, OPS and WEPS on five different DDGs has a little more experience that “someone actually qualified to stand watch.” That CO also happens to be my son. I spent 17 years at USNA and have a little more than keyboard sailor experience, so why don’t you go back to whatever space pissants are being stored in these days.

      • Scott Hanson

        johne37179,

        There is zero evidence that ACX Crystal reversed course and came back and collided with Fitz.

        The course reversal was a half hour AFTER the impact which was much earlier.

  • USNVO

    They need to check the Biography. I would expect that Rear Admiral Fort is Commander of Navy Region Hawaii and Commander, Naval Surface Group Middle PACIFIC not Atlantic.

    • Marjus Plaku

      Yeah I just saw that and was about to comment on it. That is some geographical reach this commander has! haha

      • Sam LaGrone

        The official bio and caption information say Atlantic, not pacific and was checked w/ a spokesperson in DC. We have a note out w/ 7th Fleet to triple check.

        • USNVO

          Considering that there is actually a Naval Surface Group MIDPAC (in Hawaii even) while there is no organization known as Naval Surface Group MIDLANT, I would bet the bio is in error.

  • Marjus Plaku

    Am I the only that finds it shocking the Navy would locate the communications ‘nodes’ of a major surface warship like the DDG above the waterline, amidship and right by the bridge and radar. Really?

    Where the Fitzgerald was impacted by the cargo vessel is exactly where I expect an enemy missile to impact the ship. And if it did, it would have a direct path to berthing, communications, combat systems, the skipper’s quarters, bridge and mechanical rooms. Seems precarious to say the least.

    • OldSaltUSNR

      Most of the damage is not visible, i.e. below the water line.

      Look up a picture of a cargo ship in drydock. All ships today pretty much have a “bulbous” bow. I’m rusty on my engineering, but this type of bow breaks surface tension and increases the efficiency of the ship moving through the water. However, it also makes for a dandy offensive “weapon”, acting in this case much the way a mine or torpedo would, absent the explosives. It tore into the Fitz below the water line, reports indicating that three major compartments were breached. The Crystal could have broken the back of the ship, at any greater speed. The comm gear could have been damaged either above the water line (antennas and such), below the water line (electronic spaces), or both.

      Sad to say, today’s Frigates and DDG’s are not yester-years “battle wagons” with 12″ to 16″ steel bands wrapping the ship. An enemy missile or torpedo will likely sink a modern destroyer, with all hands, in seconds. That makes ship’s defense overwhelmingly critical, as you likely only get “hit alpha”. By the time of “hit bravo”, you’re probably in heaven and the ship, underwater.

      What makes incidents such as the USS Cole and USS Stark so impressive, and such a tribute to their crews, is that this kind of damage is ONLY sustainable if (a) they’re lucky/blessed (b) their damage control preparation is top notch – and the USN’s is, the best in the world, and (c) the crew is smart, courageous, and tenacious in fighting that ship.

      All of those accolades now apply also to the crew of the USS Fitzgerald. They did a heck of a job.

    • mariner

      I hope there aren’t many of you.

      Radio antennae are by necessity on the mast, and cables are shorter if the radio space is in the superstructure, close to the base of the mast. Shorter cables mean less signal loss and more effective shielding.

      I’d be shocked if the radio room were below the waterline.

  • I’d rather read the reasoned reporting in the USNI News, than the wild speculation in the rest of the fake news media.

    • grandpabluewater

      I view speculation prior to investigation, much less deliberately assigning fault to one vessel, much less the one the author of the speculative article knows the least about, as both premature and utterly unreliable; and best disregarded by any serious professional.

      Let the jaybirds on the clothesline squawk and ruin the laundry, wait for the results of the investigation(s) and then discuss the facts and findings.

      Having stood OOD and OOW in both the Navy and the Merchant Marine (respectively) in that neck of the woods, I have some thoughts, including one I’ll share – the gcaptain piece was mostly clickbait aimed at stirring the pot to improve the fees the blog could charge for advertising: in effect if not intent.

      The Navy can learn from the Merchant Marine, and vice versa, if the exchange of views generates more light than heat. The best way is to base the discussion on the facts. Just the facts, please, just the facts (hat tip: Jack Webb).

      • concerned resident and citizen

        Back in 1974-1977 I served as OOD mid watch on a destroyer, and at night, most inexperienced mid watch lookouts and cic all combined lead to these kind of situations. I will never forget almost same situation. One minute a ship on my ( rear) port side and then (a little later) coming up on my starboard side. Lookouts half asleep, constantly prodded by the bridge, u there? Or smoking the weed, as a young Ltjg, I did my time and knew this kind of ‘Navy’ just wasn’t a job nor was it my kind of adventure, being responsible for a lot of ( sleeping) fellow sailors. One time as jood I watched the Squardon Commodore observe our Captain try and bring the ship to port without a tug and rip half the pier off. He shortly was transferred to Inactive ships yard Norfolk. I should of wrote a book as McCales Navy -2

        • grandpabluewater

          I see you and I have in the past been over many miles of similar bad road.

          I was more a glutton for punishment.

  • Gerald Garrett

    Glad was not up there on the bridge standing a mid watch when this happened. Those tasked with radars along with all the forward look outs on deck are in trouble. Too many eyes must have been at darken ship show no white lights top side is derelict,,,,,, involuntary manslaughter as ship mates died.
    Jagman is going to end careers, RIP all 7 <

  • RunningBear

    …sadly it only can only come to “Asleep at the Wheel”…God Bless the USA(N)…

  • George Hollingsworth

    Could the destroyer have been in a “racetrack holding pattern” on autopilot awaiting entry into Tokyo Bay and just turned into the tanker while still on autopilot?

    • honcho13

      There is NO such thing as “auto pilot” in the Navy – as far as I know! On ALL Navy ships, the bridge is fully manned during normal operations and ADDITIONAL watchstanders are manning all watchstations throughout the ship when the ship is at “Sea & Anchor Detail” – that is when entering or leaving port or in a “restricted maneuvering” situation. As I understand it, the Fitzgerald was not in a situation which warranted additional watchstanders, but was in normal steaming condition. HOWEVER, there should have been sufficient personal on the bridge and in Combat Information Center (CIC) manning radar equipment and plotting ANY contacts within range of the ship (that is “from horizon to horizon”). This is why this particular situation is soooo puzzling to me – and will be of primary importance to the investigating board: How could the watchstanders on the Fitzgerald have missed a 20-something ton freighter? And since there were a number fatalities involve, I will bet their will be some serious repercussions! Senior Chief Petty Officer, U. S. Navy (ret)

  • Dennis

    Anybody know what “JAGMAN’ stands for?

    • Earl

      JUDGE ADVOCATE GENERAL

      • grandpabluewater

        The Manual of the (Navy) Judge Advocate General (who is the Senior JAG Corps (of the Navy) officer and commandant of that (Navy) Staff Corps. It establishes procedures and limitations of (Navy) legal proceedings for Admiralty law and Military law for armed services ruled by the Secretary of the Navy, under rules and procedures, powers, and limitations established the Constitution; UCMJ, Manual for Courts Martial, and Treaties and Status of Forces Agreements with allies.

        The Cookbook for Military and Martial
        Law as served up by the naval service of the USA. SORTA.

        Herein there be lawyers’ complications..me hearties.

    • Tom Wood

      JAG Manual