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.
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.
“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.