Home » News & Analysis » Former CO of USS John S. McCain Pleads Guilty to Negligence in Collision Case

Former CO of USS John S. McCain Pleads Guilty to Negligence in Collision Case

Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez. US Navy Photo

WASHINGTON NAVY YARD – The commander of the guided-missile destroyer that collided with a merchant ship off Singapore in August 2017 pleaded guilty to a single charge of negligence for his role in the incident that killed 10 sailors.

As part of an agreement to plead guilty, former USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) commander Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez admitted to not setting the proper watch team for the busy shipping lane the ship was entering, or taking proper action when the bridge crew lost control of the ship due to a poor understanding of the helm controls.

A military judge sentenced Sanchez to a punitive letter of reprimand and forfeiture of $6,000 in pay. As part of the agreement, he has requested to retire, and that request will be allowed or denied later in the accountability proceedings. The results of the court-martial also put a federal misdemeanor on his record. Sanchez had faced admiral’s mast shortly after the collision and was given credit for his punishment at sentencing.

Prior to the plea agreement, Sanchez could have faced more serious charges including negligent homicide and hazarding a vessel, which could have resulted in jail time, according to a January decision by naval reactors director Adm. James F. Caldwell. Caldwell was appointed late last year to oversee disciplinary actions for the McCain and USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) collisions as a consolidated decision authority.

Damage to the portside is visible as the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) steers towards Changi Naval Base, Republic of Singapore on Aug. 21, 2017. US Navy Photo

In the court-martial, Sanchez admitted he acted against the recommendation of his operations officer, navigator and executive officer. They advised Sanchez to set McCain’s sea and anchor detail as the ship was entering the heavily traveled Singapore traffic separation at 5 a.m. local time on Aug. 21. A ship’s sea and anchor detail include a U.S. warship’s most experienced ship handlers that are put on the watch bill when the ship enters difficult operating areas. Instead, Sanchez ordered the more experienced watch team to get an extra hour of sleep and said he would supervise the less experienced crew on the bridge.

During the transit, a change in settings on the ship’s new digital integrated bridge and navigation system caused the 18-year-old helmsman to lose control of McCain when the steering function was transferred to another terminal on the bridge.

“We put this on this 18-year-old,” Sanchez said.
“I did not put him in a position to succeed.”

While the watch spent three minutes attempting to gain control of the ship, it had drifted into the path of the oiler Alnic MC. McCain did put on a signal to indicate to other ships it was out of control, but it did not attempt to reach other ships via bridge-to-bridge radio or sound warning blasts of the ship’s horn, nor did it sound the collision alarm inside the destroyer.

The bulbous bow of Alnic MC crushed McCain below the waterline and flooded the berthing compartment with seawater, fuel oil and other chemicals.

US Navy Graphic

“Your honor, as the commanding officer, I am ultimately responsible and stand accountable for the actions and decisions leading to the [McCain] collision and death of my ten sailors on 21 August 2017,” Sanchez said in a statement.
“I will forever question my decisions that contributed to this tragic event and fully recognize that no actions or desires will bring our sailors back.”

Sanchez said he should have set the sea and anchor detail, who would have been better trained to handle a loss of steering during the transit, or should have taken charge on the bridge earlier when he noticed trouble.

Instead, the watch bill was staffed – in part – with helmsmen who were cross-decked from guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam (CG-54). A defense attorney for Sanchez did not specify the composition of the watch team when asked by USNI News after the trial.

On Thursday, the senior enlisted sailor in charge of training sailors to operate the bridge equipment said he had trouble getting technical assistance to understand the new helm system and that his own personal training on the IBNS was limited to reading technical manuals and a one-hour tutorial with a sailor familiar with the system.

“[It was] difficult to get training,” Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jeffery Butler said in his Thursday summary court-martial.
“We asked for the techs to come over, but they never showed… “With time and more training, I could have stopped all that.”

Butler pleaded guilty to one count of dereliction of duty on Thursday and was reduced in rank to E-6.

Sanchez and Butler’s pleas are the latest in the ongoing accountability actions related to the McCain and Fitzgerald collisions overseen by Caldwell.

Earlier this month, the officer of the deck at the time of the Fitzgerald collision, Lt. j.g. Sarah Coppock, pleaded guilty to negligence for her role in the collision. Former Fitzgerald commander Cmdr. Bryce Benson and two officers on duty in the combat information center during the collision face charges that include negligent homicide and hazarding a vessel.

Additionally, Caldwell has overseen 18 non-judicial punishments related to both collisions.

  • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

    Ain’t software systems grand? As an engineer, this is appalling.

    • William Blankinship

      I worked flyby wire tilt rotors before my retirement. Yes they are scary.

      • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

        33 years in aviation systems engineering and design. It’s a grand thing unless everything depends upon it to the point a parrot can run it. Then it goes South fast.

        Why would ship contol he casually transferee to some other terminal that was “unmanned” or?

        • dbeierl

          The initial intent was to put throttle and helm on two stations because the helmsman was observed to be having difficulty handling both. Things went downhill from there very rapidly. There’s a detailed chronology in the report.

          • Jon

            But why have an interface so cumbersome, that the helmsman has difficulty handling both throttles and helm to begin with? With the critical moments being spent wrassling with a poorly designed interface rather than driving/situational awareness. Rip out all the touchscreens, and replace them with 2x old school rotary switches and indicator lights labeled “HELM/LEE HELM” for helm/throttle control…

          • dbeierl

            No argument from me there.

    • Duane

      Software has nothing to do with anything. If the throttleman or whoever is controlling propulsion doesn’t know what they are doing, and the system does exactly what the operator manipulates the controls to do, then the fault is not with the system but with the operator.

      Somebody also needs to be paying attention to what the operators are doing to make sure they are actually doing as ordered. Normally that would be the OOD.

      In no way was any design factor implicated in any of the investigations. The faults were 100% on the watchstanders for poor training, negligence, and stupidity.

      • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

        Yes, because a traditional wheel and throttle were so much less capable?

        • Jon

          Not transformational/high tech, with cool graphics, multiple screens, and shiny lights…

          • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

            Yeah, as an engineer I am not opposed to all this, but complex systems require a high degree of idiot proofing.

            Sometimes less, is more?

          • Jon

            We don’t want drivers barrelling down the highway fiddling with their cell phone/nav system menu screens instead of paying attention to what they’re doing, why so drivers of $2 billion warships?

          • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

            I am not opposed to computers doing these tasks, it is part of modern life but the user interface needs to be very explicit about what is taking place.

            Of course, in the old days, like Vietnam, they used a wheelhouse. Seems, looking out a window instead of looking at a screen might be useful?

        • Duane

          Tradition has nothing to do with anything. These were not sailing frigates with big wooden wheels attached by ropes to the rudder steering post. These are late 20th century DDG-51 destroyers, and everyone on the bridge watch team and aft at the auxiliary steering console had better damned well know how they work and how to operate them under stress without question, having been formally trained and certified by examination by the CO and his designees.

          As we all know now, that didn’t happen.

          It ain’t the software … or the hardware … it’s the people.

          • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

            You need to go down to WalMart and get a sense of humor.

      • tim

        … to say it has “nothing” to do with it, does not take into consideration that some software is written in such a way, that it includes usable feedback – for instance with simple schematics that light up to show what the system is doing. Software always comes in flavors from well to badly written. Than you have management and cost factors … it is never “simple” and yes, I have seen information about that this system was poorly executed and implemented, as well as not standardized. Nevertheless, I mostly agree with you 🙂

        • Duane

          You’re talking about human factors design, and that is something that should always be considered in designing any gear or system.

          There were some minor human factors design issues contributing factors cited by the investigators, but not with respect to the McCain throttle controls (stuff like radar repeaters on the bridge not matching sensor outputs in CIC on the Fitz). The operators of the McCain throttle controls, including the CO himself, simply didn’t know how they worked.

      • hrcint

        Spot on observation, sir.
        The surface navy has become a hazard to safe navigation.
        Old reserve OOD/Navigator/XO

  • ew_3

    So who gave the order to slow the port shaft? That was the kiss of death.

    • Graeme Rymill

      A timeline from the “Ships and Oil” web site:

      0522.05. The Lee Helm now has control of the port and starboard shafts, both still turning at 87 rpm with pitch at 100%. The Commanding Officer orders a reduction in speed to 10 knots.
      0522.07. The Lee Helm lowers the speed of the port shaft to 44 rpm/100% pitch, but no-one is aware that the starboard shaft is still at 87 rpm/100% pitch.

      The Diplomat web site commented “The speed error was the result of the helmsman believing that two shaft’s throttles were linked, or “ganged,” meaning that adjusting one would adjust both, when in fact they were not.” The article goes on to theorize that the design of the new digital controls made this confusion much more likely.

      • TransformerSWO

        Ah, that makes sense. I hadn’t seen that anywhere else. Training, again.

  • Marcus Bloodworth

    18 is the age I volunteered to serve. Make no mistake about it, 18 is a kid in civilian life and a man/woman in the military. The breadth of responsibility I took and continued to take throughout my military career would be astounding if age was brought into play. Fact is this person was poorly trained. Being 18 or 58 doesn’t matter if your training isn’t up to standards.

    • Jon

      At 18, the helmsman isn’t/wasn’t old enough to have sufficient time in service or position to have the opportunity to be considered fully trained, nor to have gained the experience/muscle memory to react appropriately in an emergency. That wasn’t a suitable time/place for him to be getting on-the-job training in a key position. He was, in fact, set up to fail.

  • tim

    … it is what it is … but failing to sound alarm would likely have safed lives … not doing so ought to have been severely punished!

  • proudrino

    Sanchez said he should have set the sea and anchor detail.

    You think? The punishment doesn’t fit the crime (or federal misdemeanor). My guess is that the Navy is trying to get these trials wrapped up as quickly as possible and CDR Sanchez has benefited as a result.

  • Fun

    as long as the diversity quotient was met…that is what made Obama and his Henchmen happy.