Navy filing homicide charges against 2 ship commanders over fatal collisions that killed 17, including 3 Marylanders
By Robert Burns and Lolita C. Baldor
Jan 16, 2018 at 9:10 PM
Five officers involved in two Navy ship collisions last year that killed a total of 17 sailors, including three Marylanders, are being charged with negligent homicide, the Navy said Tuesday.
A Navy spokesman, Capt. Greg Hicks, said the charges, which also include dereliction of duty and endangering a ship, will be presented to what the military calls an Article 32 hearing to determine whether the accused are taken to trial in a court-martial.
The disciplinary actions were decided by Adm. Frank Caldwell and are the latest in a series of moves the Navy has made in the aftermath of the deadly collisions, which investigators concluded were avoidable. It fired several top leaders, including the commander of the 7th Fleet, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin and several other senior commanders in the Pacific.
The Navy has been reeling from tough questions arising from the two collisions. The destroyer USS Fitzgerald struck a commercial ship off the waters of Japan in June, killing seven U.S. sailors. The destroyer USS John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker in coastal waters off Singapore in August, killing 10 U.S. sailors.
Timothy Eckels Jr., 23, of Manchester, and Kevin Bushell, 26, of Gaithersburg, died aboard the McCain. Eckels was an Information Systems Technician 2nd Class and Bushell was an Electronics Technician 1st Class.
Petty Officer 1st Class Xavier Martin, 24, of Halethorpe, died aboard the Fitzgerald.
Grieving families of the deceased sailors in December lamented that the Navy had not done more to account for the deaths.
“I want answers,” said Rachel Eckels, the mother of Timothy Eckels Jr., in an interview with The Baltimore Sun last year. “It just doesn’t make sense to us.”
The Navy said it is filing at least three charges against four officers of the Fitzgerald, including the commanding officer, who was Cmdr. Bryce Benson at the time. Benson suffered a head injury in the collision and was airlifted to the U.S. Naval Hospital at Yokosuka, Japan.
A Navy investigation found that Benson left the ship's bridge before the collision. Also facing charges are two lieutenants and one lieutenant junior grade, whose names were not disclosed. The Navy said all four face criminal charges, including negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and endangering a ship.
Fewer officers from the McCain are being charged. The Navy said the ship's commander at the time, Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez, is being charged with negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and endangering a ship. A chief petty officer, whose name was not disclosed, faces a charge of dereliction of duty.
In a statement, Hicks said the announcement of charges Tuesday is "not intended to and does not reflect a determination of guilt or innocence related to any offenses. All individuals alleged to have committed misconduct are entitled to a presumption of innocence."
Hicks said that in addition to the criminal charges, additional administrative actions are being taken against unidentified members of both crews, including non-judicial punishment for four from the Fitzgerald and four from the McCain.
As a result of the two deadly accidents, at least eight top Navy officers, including the 7th Fleet commander, were fired from their jobs last year, and a number of other sailors received reprimands or other punishment that was not publicly released. Among the senior officers relieved of duty, in addition to Aucoin, were Rear Adm. Charles Williams and Capt. Jeffrey Bennett. Williams was the commander of Task Force 70, which includes the aircraft carriers, destroyers and cruisers in the 7th Fleet, and Bennett was commander of the destroyer squadron.
In a report released in November, the Navy concluded that the two crashes, as well as a third collision in May and a ship grounding, were all avoidable, and resulted from widespread failures by the crews and commanders who didn't quickly recognize and respond to unfolding emergencies.
A second report called for about 60 recommended changes to address the problems. They ranged from improved training on seamanship, navigation and the use of ship equipment to more basic changes to improve sleep and stress management for sailors.
The extensive training and leadership failures prompted the top Navy officer, Adm. John Richardson, to order all naval commanders around the world to review their staffs and ships to see if they had similar problems.
The Navy's investigation of the two collisions found that in addition to bad judgment, the crews were not adequately prepared.
"In the Navy, the responsibility of the Commanding Officer for his or her ship is absolute," it said. "Many of the decisions made that led to this incident were the result of poor judgment and decision making of the Commanding Officer. That said, no single person bears full responsibility for this incident. The crew was unprepared for the situation in which they found themselves through a lack of preparation, ineffective command and control, and deficiencies in training and preparations for navigation."
Baltimore Sun reporters John Fritze, Sarah Gantz and Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.
Rachel Eckels, mother of Information Systems Technician 2nd Class Timothy T. Eckels, shares memories of her son, who was killed in a collision between his ship and an oil tanker earlier this year. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun video)