We Don’t Know Much About the Fitzgerald Collision and That Seems Odd

A freak, deadly accident between a U.S. Navy destroyer and a civilian cargo ship is already prompting conspiracy theories online. That being said, with relatively little official information on the circumstances so far, it’s hard not to feel like the entire situation is a bit weird.

Here’s what we do know. On June 17, 2017, the container ship ACX Crystal collided with the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Fitzgerald in international waters 56 miles off the coast of Japan’s main island, Honshu. Both ships suffered significant damage, but the far less massive American warship came out of the incident decidedly worse for wear.

Navy Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet forward deployed in Japan, described the extent of the incident during a press conference on June 18, 2017, after which the Fitzgerald had returned to Yokosuka Harbor under its own power. He said:

The ship suffered severe damage rapidly flooding 3 large compartments that included 1 machinery room and 2 berthing areas for 116 crew.

The Commanding Officer’s cabin was also directly hit, trapping the CO [commanding officer] inside. The crew’s response was swift and effective, and I want to point out – as we stand by the ship – how proud I am of them.

Heroic efforts prevented the flooding from catastrophically spreading which could have caused the ship to founder or sink. It could have been much worse.

The crew navigated the ship into one of the busiest ports in the world with a magnetic compass and backup navigation equipment. 1 of 2 shafts were locked.

Because of the tireless damage control efforts of a resolute and courageous team, the ship was able to make its way back to port safely on its own power last evening.  

The side of USS Fitzgerald after the collision., AP

Later that day, divers had an opportunity to inspect the damage more thoroughly and located the bodies of seven crew members the Navy had initially listed as missing. Based on the language in the official statement, it appeared they had tragically drowned in their berthing spaces after the Crystal struck the destroyer. The ages of many of those sailors killed in the incident is a stark reminder that these powerful, multi-billion dollar warships are largely run by kids just entering into adulthood. Here are their names, titles and where they are from:

– Gunner’s Mate Seaman Dakota Kyle Rigsby, 19, from Palmyra, Virginia

– Yeoman 3rd Class Shingo Alexander Douglass, 25, from San Diego, California

– Sonar Technician 3rd Class Ngoc T Truong Huynh, 25, from Oakville, Connecticut

– Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Noe Hernandez, 26, from Weslaco, Texas

– Fire Controlman 2nd Class Carlos Victor Ganzon Sibayan, 23, from Chula Vista, California

– Personnel Specialist 1st Class Xavier Alec Martin, 24, from Halethorpe, Maryland

– Fire Controlman 1st Class Gary Leo Rehm Jr., 37, from Elyria, Ohio

During the immediate response to the accident, Japanese Coast Guard helicopters had conducted two separate medical evacuations, one for Navy Commander Bryce Benson, the Fitzgerald’s commander, and another for two as yet unnamed sailors. The rescue teams took all three individuals to Naval Hospital Yokosuka, where they were reportedly “alert and under observation.”

The United States has promised three separate investigations of its own into the incident. The Navy’s Judge Advocate General (JAGMAN) will conduct one into the basic circumstances of the accident, while the service will also perform a separate safety review. The U.S. Coast Guard will perform another so-called “marine casualty investigation” into the conduct of the Crystal and her crew. Japanese maritime authorities will go through their own investigative processes.

But, so far, neither American nor Japanese authorities have provided an official narrative of how the accident occurred or granular details as to what mission Fitzgerald was performing at the time. “I will not speculate on how long these investigations will last,” Vice Admiral Aucoin added during his press conference.

So, it’s perhaps not surprising then that conspiracy theorists have emerged to start filling in the gaps. Of course, it’s important to note immediately that there is no hard evidence of any kind to substantiate the idea that the collision was intentional. However, as more details come out from independent reports and research, there are definitely parts of whole situation that do seem a bit weird.

Firstly, MarineTraffic, an online ship tracking service similar to aircraft watching sites like FlightRadar24, showed the Crystal making what appeared to be an emergency turn at 1:30 AM on July 17, 2017, deviating widely from its established course. The website can also generate a graph of the container ship’s speed, which in this case shows a sudden drop from 14 knots to zero, possibility indicating the time of collision. It then appeared to speed up to a similar speed shortly after. It’s another important data point, even if we cannot independently verify the accuracy of the satellite tracking data. At 2:25 AM, the Philippine-flagged ship reports the accident and five minutes later suddenly makes a 180 degree turn and heads back to what is now know to be the collision site. Some speculated this might have been the result of an autopilot error or failure.

The Japanese Coast Guard, who initially said the incident happened at 2:20 AM based on this information, is reportedly looking into why it took the civilian vessel’s crew an hour to inform marine authorities – the equivalent to a sort of high-seas hit and run. As of June 19, 2017, it was unclear whether the U.S. Navy was still sticking by the original timeline. “Because it was in an emergency, the crewmembers may not have been able to place a call,” Nanami Meguro, a spokeswoman for NYK Line, who own the Crystal, speculated, according to CBS News. There is no explanation as to why the crew of the Fitzgerald did not immediately contact their higher headquarters afterwards, which would have quickly set the record straight.

A Japanese Coast Guard helicopter flies over the USS Fitzgerald after the collision on June 17, 2017. , AP

Then there’s the actual chain of custody of the Crystal, which is a matter for debate in of itself, further fueling speculation that there might be more nefarious forces at play. The ownership traces its way through a number of wholly own subsidiaries within Japan’s keiretsu monopoly system, as well as and separate parties. Officially, Asia Container Express (ACX), a subsidiary of NYK Line, operates the ship and claims ownership. However, it appears that Dainichi-Invest Corporation, an investment firm specializing in ships technically holds the vessel’s title. NYK line is itself a subsidiary of Mitsubishi.  And though NYK Line has taken responsibility for the vessel, they reportedly have bare-boat chartered it to a shipping company in the Philippines since 2014. This means the ship itself is leased to the other party, who then provide the crew, fuel, and other supplies to actually operate it. The various maritime authorities have released practically no information about the Crystal’s crew or how they fared during the accident.

On top of that, there are unconfirmed rumors that the Crystal was sailing without its running lights on and its maritime transponder, intended to help prevent such accidents, switched off. However, since MarineTraffic uses unencrypted transponder data to populate its maps, which showed the ship before, during, and after the collision, the latter claim seems highly unlikely. There has been speculation about the status of Fitzgerald’s radar and other surveillance systems during the incident, as well.

The bow of the ACX Crystal after the collision., AP

“There is – at this writing – a lot we do not know about how the destroyer USS Fitzgerald came to collide with a heavily-laden freighter in the waters off Japan in the middle of the night,” John Kirby, a retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral who served as the top spokesman for the Department of Defense under President Barack Obama, and is now an analyst for CNN, wrote in an op-ed on June 18, 2017.”We do not know whether the warship’s radars were operating sufficiently. We do not know what decisions the men and women who were standing watch aboard the destroyer made – or failed to make – that could have averted the danger. We do not know what actions, if any, were taken by the crew of the freighter to either cause or avoid this tragedy.”

With all this in mind, plus the apparent angle of the collision based on the damage, the prevailing conspiracy theory is that for some reason the Crystal, which features a bulbous bow that would be well suited to ramming a smaller ship, deliberately plowed into the side of the Fitzgerald. To follow this logic, one of the more likely bad actors in such a scenario would be North Korea, which does have a history of using its own cargo ships, front companies, and unscrupulous foreign firms to move illicit or restricted cargoes to and from the reclusive country. In addition, there has been steadily escalating rhetoric between officials in Washington and Pyongyang, as well as more active incidents, such a bizarre and still largely unexplained scuffle between agents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and North Korean diplomats at New York City’s JFK International Airport on June 18, 2017. North Korea has not shied away from covert actions against its enemies, including the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, half-brother of the country’s premier Kim Jong Un, in Malaysia in February 2017.

The cargo vessel was heavily laden at the time of the collision. , AP

But, as we’ve already said, there are no factual details that definitely support this scenario. It’s just as likely that the crew of the Crystal was engaged in some much more mundane criminality or that they were operating without some necessary paperwork, prompting them to try and flee before the magnitude of the situation became clearer. And it’s entirely possible it really just was a freak accident that will be blamed on some technological or mechanical failure or just old fashioned gross human error.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.