June 19, 2017

HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN? The Fitzgerald, The U.S. Navy, and Collisions at Sea.

It is difficult to understand how something like this could happen, given the size of the vessels, the well-understood rules that govern the movement of ships, the expanse of the ocean, the technology available to avoid collisions, and the (relatively) slow speed at which ships move. As this tragedy unfolded in near-real time, on Friday night (Eastern time), I participated in a robust exchange on Twitter, trying to offer what little I could to concerned people trying to make sense of the news. Concern for the crew dominated the discussion, but there were many well-intentioned “how does something like this happen?” tweets. It would be premature and irresponsible to comment on the specifics of this collision, because I know nothing of them. What we have are photographs of two ships which give us some idea of the alignment of the vessels at impact, but which tell us little about their relative positions when the error chain began. There will be investigations and they will affix responsibility — such is the way of admiralty law and the practice of the U.S. Navy. Blame and responsibility have no place in this essay.

From 2004 to 2006 I commanded USS Bulkeley (DDG 84), a ship very much like the Fitzgerald, and during the rest of my 21-year Navy career I spent a good bit of time at sea. I have never been involved in a collision, but I have been in very tight situations which, had my ship or the other not properly responded, could have resulted in one. During my career, on the rare occasions in which Navy ships were involved in collisions, voluminous lessons learned were promulgated. We studied these incidents and incorporated them into our training. In virtually every instance, decisions made by fallible human beings were contributing factors.

Enlightening stuff for landlubbers.