Mysterious Collision at Sea—How Did This Happen?
Andrew Wheeler posted on July 11, 2017 |

In the first few hours of June 17th, 2017, the USS Fitzgerald, a United States Navy destroyer of the U.S. 7th Fleet operating out of the Yokosaka Japanese and U.S. Naval base collided with the ACX Crystal, a Philippine container ship built in South Korea in 2008. The collision occurred about 56 nautical miles south of a US-Japanese military base located at the mouth of the Tokyo Bay.

The collision occurred on the container ship’s port bow and the USS Fitzgerald’s starboard side, both above and below the waterline.

The commanding officer and 2 injured sailors were airlifted away from the crash site, and seven sailors were found dead in the flooded starboard compartments. There were 20 Filipino crew members on the container ship, none of which suffered any injuries.

The 730-foot ACX Crystal was carrying more than 1000 shipping containers when it collided with the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald 56 miles off the coast of Japan on June 17th. (Image courtesy of Kyodo Photo.)
The 730-foot ACX Crystal was carrying more than 1000 shipping containers when it collided with the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald 56 miles off the coast of Japan on June 17th. (Image courtesy of Kyodo Photo.)

So how did this happen? It really seems unfathomable in 2017 that such an accident could occur.

The container ship is equipped with an Automated Identification System (AIS) which is designed to prevent these exact types of collisions by using an automated radio transponder to broadcast location data to other AIS equipped ships.

The USS Fitzgerald is a highly sophisticated warship—it uses SPS-67 radar to track surface contacts 40 miles away, it has commercial surface search radar, and according to US Navy protocol, there should have been 3 lookouts on the starboard, port, and stern sides to communicate changes in position or course.

Given that both vessels are equipped with an array of modern sensing technologies and collision avoidance protocols, how could a giant container ship and a USS Destroyer collide?

Was the ACX Crystal traveling faster than the USS Fitzgerald? You can tell from photos of the collision that the ACX Crystal struck the USS Fitzgerald perpendicularly. If the Crystal was traveling faster and in the same direction as the USS Fitzgerald in a crowded shipping lane, maybe the crew of the USS Fitzgerald were busy with other more immediate maneuvers to avoid collisions, and turned into the oncoming ACX Crystal.

Perhaps the USS Fitzgerald determined that the ACX Crystal was at the same bearing and wasn’t as much of an immediate threat compared to other potential collisions in the shipping lane. US Navy vessels track all contacts around them and formulate what’s known as a Closest Point of Approach (CPA). The CPA calculates the path of a ship and other vessels and determines how far apart the ships will be at their closest points. Perhaps there were other contacts that required the full attention of the captain and crew, leaving the USS Fitzgerald with little time to react to the oncoming ACX Crystal.

The wreckage caused by the ACX Crystal upon impacting the USS Fitzgerald. The United States Naval Institute reported that the captain of the USS Fitzgerald was in his cabin at the time, meaning he and his crew could have been focused on other maneuvering threats detected before a minimum CPA from the ACX Crystal was established. (Image courtesy of EPA).
The wreckage caused by the ACX Crystal upon impacting the USS Fitzgerald. The United States Naval Institute reported that the captain of the USS Fitzgerald was in his cabin at the time, meaning he and his crew could have been focused on other maneuvering threats detected before a minimum CPA from the ACX Crystal was established. (Image courtesy of EPA).

Was the ACX Crystal container ship running on autopilot? The crew of the container ship didn’t report the 1:30 am crash until 2:25 am.

As it turns out, the ACX Crystal was indeed running on autopilot, according to private naval analyst Steffan Watkins. Watkins told the Free Beacon that “The ACX Crystal powered out of the deviation it performed at 1:30, which was likely the impact with the USS Fitzgerald, pushing it off course while trying to free itself from being hung on the bow below the waterline.”

This video, made by private naval analyst Steffan Watkins, shows the course of the ACX Crystal.

The mystery of the collision remains largely just that – a mystery.  Unfortunately, that fact provides little consolation to the families of the seven sailors who lost their lives. The US Navy is currently investigating the matter, and we will hopefully learn more about the genesis of this tragic incident in the coming weeks and months.


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