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Warship captain relieved of command over collision that left seven sailors dead

The captain of a US warship that lost seven sailors in a collision with a commercial container ship in June will be relieved of command and more than a dozen others face punishment.

Admiral William Moran, the vice chief of naval operations, told reporters the senior leaders on the USS Fitzgerald, which was badly damaged in the collision off the coast of Japan, will be removed from duty aboard the ship.

They are the commanding officer, Commander Bryce Benson, the executive officer, Commander Sean Babbitt and Master Chief Petty Officer Brice Baldwin, who as the ship's command master chief is its most senior enlisted sailor.

The actions are being taken by Rear Admiral Joseph Aucoin, commander of the navy's 7th Fleet, based at Yokosuka, Japan, because he lost confidence in the three, Admiral Moran said.

In addition, nearly a dozen face non-judicial punishment that has yet to be determined, he said, adding that details on those actions are to be announced on Friday after they are completed.

Admiral Moran said the actions will be taken shortly, although the investigation into how and why the USS Fitzgerald collided with the container ship in June has not yet been completed.

"Serious mistakes were made by members of the crew," he said, adding that he could not fully detail those mistakes because the investigation is continuing.

He said "the bridge team," or the sailors responsible for keeping watch on the ship's bridge to ensure it remains safe, had "lost situational awareness," which left them unable to respond quickly enough to avoid the disaster once the oncoming container ship was spotted.

Separately, the navy released the results of a review of events that took place aboard the ship after the collision, focusing on the crew's efforts to control damage, save lives and keep the ship afloat.

The crash occurred in the pre-dawn hours of June 17 in an accident-prone area known for congestion within Japanese territorial waters. The seas were relatively calm, and visibility was unrestricted.

The bow of the container ship, the Philippine-flagged ACX Crystal, slammed into the Fitzgerald's right side above the waterline, quickly flooding several areas inside the ship, including a berthing, or sleeping, area.

Of the 35 sailors who were in Berthing 2 at the time, 28 escaped. Seven drowned.

The collision knocked out external communications and cut power in the forward portion of the ship.

The navy review of what happened aboard the ship following the collision found that the seven deaths could not be blamed on misconduct.

It commended the response by the ship's crew, singling out two sailors for taking extra steps to help others out of the flooded berthing space - actions that it said probably saved the lives of at least two of their shipmates.

"No damage control efforts, however, would have prevented Berthing 2 from flooding completely within the first two minutes following the collision, or the deadly circumstances in that situation," the review said.

The report said although some in Berthing 2 heard a loud noise at the time of the collision or were thrown from their beds by the force of the impact, some did not realise what had happened and remained in bed. Some remained asleep.

"At least one sailor had to be pulled from his rack and into the water before he woke up," it said.


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