Divers Find Remains Of USS McCain Sailors As Reports of Steering Loss Emerge

A major press conference and video release give us more insight into the Navy’s damage control plans going forward.

byTyler Rogoway|
China photo


Scott Swift, commander of the Pacific Fleet, has announced that remains of an unknown number of sailors have been identified by divers who recently accessed the USS John S. McCain's flooded compartments. The Malaysian Navy has also said they have found the remains of sailor during their search operations in the vicinity of where the destroyer collided with the oil tanker Alnic MC on Sunday morning while sailing off the coast of Singapore, near the bustling Strait of Malacca. 

The first statement released from 7th Fleet today announced that divers were going to try and access the flooded compartments:

"Equipped with surface supplied air rigs, divers will access sealed compartments located in damaged parts of the ship. Additionally, they will conduct damage assessments of the hull and flooded areas... Several diving units are supporting search efforts, including Navy divers from Ship Repair Facility Yokosuka and Commander Logistics Group Western Pacific as well as Marine divers from 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit embarked on America."

The second statement followed Admiral Swift's press conference that reported the news that remains had been found:

"...some of the 10 missing USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) Sailors were discovered today by divers performing recovery operations inside the guided-missile destroyer. Swift also said the Royal Malaysian Navy has reported  the discovery of potential remains of another missing McCain Sailor, located while the ship was providing search and rescue assistance east of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore."   

Similar circumstances occurred during the search for missing sailors involved in the USS Fitzgerald mishap, which also had flooded compartments. The Navy hasn't given an updated number as to how many sailors are still classified as missing. This will likely take some time depending on the condition of the remains, which Swift refers to as "bodies." 

Malaysian sailors move the recovered remains of what they think is one of the McCain's crew., AP

During Admiral Swift's comments, which parroted the statements above, he noted that USS John S. McCain is badly damaged and that the damage control efforts by her crew saved her from a more gruesome fate. In fact, the crew activated the ship's flight deck not long after the collision, not just to evacuate the wounded but also to refuel search and rescue helicopters that were looking for their lost shipmates. This feat occurred while the crew was still trying to keep the ship from flooding.

Swift also stated that the already announced fleet-wide operational pause will now last through August 28th. A second and more extensive phase of this initiative will only affect U.S. Navy vessels in the Pacific theatre, and will be a "deliberate reset for our ships" according to Swift, focusing on evaluating all forms of each vessel's operations. There was no timeframe placed on this second phase. 

The Admiral was also asked about the possibility cyber interference or anything of that sort causing the crash. Swift said they will look into it but there is no indication of such circumstances at this time. The Admiral also says that search and rescue efforts will continue. 

Here is Admiral Swift's press conference:

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Meanwhile, Admiral Phil Davidson, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces, released a video where he outlined directions for the Navy's fleet-wide operational pause. The distribution of the video was somewhat odd, as it is fairly technical and jargon filled for such a wide release, but under the circumstances the Navy clearly thinks it needs to do everything it can to assure the public it is competent and seriously intends to solve what has become a vexing, deadly, and somewhat chronic issue. Transparency is a big part of such a strategy. Here's the video:

While theories as to what caused the collision are hurdled around the internet, multiple reports, including from CNN, state that the ship inadvertently lost steering control before the crash. Here is what the CNN report said:

"The McCain suffered a steering failure as the warship was beginning its approach into the Strait of Malacca, causing it to collide with a commercial tanker, a Navy official told CNN.The official said it was unclear why the crew couldn't use the ship's backup steering systems to maintain control. Earlier, another US Navy official told CNN there were indications the destroyer experienced a loss of steering right before the collision, but steering had been regained afterward."

Reports of loss of steering control are intriguing, but the possibility leads to even more questions than it does answers, especially considering the assumed geometry of the collision. The high-profile nature of the mishap, and the precarious position it has put the Navy in following so many other incidents in just a year's time, it's likely we will get at least some basic facts about the moments leading up to crash sooner than normal. 

We will continue to keep you posted as the story unfolds.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com