Families of sailors killed aboard the USS John S. McCain last year have filed legal claims against the owners of the oil tanker that the U.S. Navy destroyer collided with east of Singapore.
In court papers filed in U.S. District Court in New York last week, the families allege that the crew of the ship, the Alnic MC, violated “basic safety rules.”
The claims came in response to an earlier legal maneuver by Energetic Tank Inc., the Liberian owner of the ship. In February, the company petitioned the court to clear itself of liability in the collision, which happened in August 2017 near the Strait of Malacca.
After the company’s move, the families faced a June 15 deadline to file claims against the ship owner. The mothers of two Maryland sailors — Information Systems Technician 2nd Class Timothy Eckels Jr., 23, of Manchester, and Electronics Technician 2nd Class Kevin Sayer Bushell, 26, of Gaithersburg — are among those seeking damages related to the collision.
“The Navy responded to this tragedy by investigating the incident, holding individuals accountable, and reviewing ways to prevent something similar from happening again,” wrote Cory Itkin, a Houston attorney representing the families, in an email to The Baltimore Sun. “Energetic Tank — the company that owns the ALNIC — responded by filing a lawsuit. The families are responding to the lawsuit to make sure Energetic Tank doesn’t escape accountability.”
The families’ claims seek unspecified damages related to their sons’ deaths. They claim the tanker “was undermanned on the bridge and was recklessly operating on ‘autopilot,’ rather than manual steering,” among other alleged safety violations.
“The incident, loss of life, and injuries were entirely avoidable had the M/V ALNIC complied with basic maritime safety rules to prevent collisions such as this,” attorneys for the families wrote in the court filings.
Thomas H. Belknap Jr., an attorney for the company that owns the Alnic MC, said he could not comment on the pending litigation.
In court filings, the company said it should not be held liable.
“The damage to the MCCAIN, the deaths and injuries to its crew, and the damage to the ALNIC were not due to any fault, neglect or want of care on the part of Plaintiff or the ALNIC, or those for whose acts Plaintiff may be responsible,” lawyers for company wrote in a February court complaint.
Itkin said the families “trust the Court to award an amount that is fair, reasonable, and sufficient to ensure Energetic Tank understands the consequences of their conduct.”
The USS McCain incident, along with another fatal collision that occurred in July between the another Navy destroyer, the USS Fitzgerald, and a containership in the Sea of Japan, prompted internal reviews by the Navy. The commander of the 7th Fleet, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, was relieved of his duty in August, and in December a Navy spokesman told The Sun that officials had made dozens of recommendations about training, scheduling and maintenance.
An investigation released in March by Singapore’s Transport Safety Investigation Bureau found the McCain made a sudden left turn into the path of the Alnic MC moments before the collision. The Alnic MC’s captain assumed the McCain would speed ahead of it, but the Navy ship did not and “the actions taken by [Alnic MC] were insufficient to avoid the collision.”
In May, two members of the McCain’s crew pleaded guilty to a single charge each for their role in the collision that killed 10 sailors, many of them trapped in flooded berthing. The ship’s former commander, Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez, pleaded guilty to a single charge of negligence, while Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jeffery Butler entered a guilty plea to a single charge of dereliction of duty.
Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.