WASHINGTON — The collision off Japan that claimed the lives of seven sailors on the U.S. Navy destroyer Fitzgerald punched a hole large enough to drive a tractor trailer through, leaving the service with the considerable task of putting the crippled destroyer back together again.
The bulbous bow of the ACX Crystal left a 12x17-foot hole beneath the waterline, per three Navy sources who spoke on background, an enormous breach that rapidly flooded three spaces. Sailors had about a minute to evacuate their berthing, and several were awoken by salt water rushing into their rack, per two sources familiar with the details of the accident said
There is no indication that the ship sounded a collision alarm, which would have alerted sleeping crew members to the looming catastrophe, prior to the collision. Those details, however, are the subject of an ongoing Navy investigation.
The collision also significantly damaged the ship's superstructure and SPY-1 radar array on its starboard side, and flooded out a main engineering space and radio central, rendering millions of dollars of expensive gear and equipment useless.
While investigators try to puzzle out what breakdowns lead to the tragic accident, the Navy is solving a complicated engineering problem: how to secure the ship enough to get the compromised hull out of the water. And then they have to figure out just how bad the damage is, if it can be fixed and where.
Navy engineers have managed to dewater most of the spaces and are working on a patch for the wounded hull, said 7th Fleet spokesman Clay Doss in an email.
"USS Fitzgerald is preparing to enter drydock on Fleet Activities Yokosuka early next month to conduct follow on inspections and repairs," Doss said. "An ammo offload was completed June 25. Additional preparations include dewatering, defueling and temporary patch installation on the hull.Once the ship is docked, technical assessments will commence that will inform options to conduct long term repairs in the United States."
Since the outset, the Navy has been intent on fixing the ship. In a press conference immediately following the June 17 collision, 7th Fleet spokesman Clay Doss in an email.
Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin told reporters that it would be a lengthy process.
"Hopefully less than a year," he said. "You will see the USS Fitzgerald back."
The emphasis in the early stages will be to stabilize the ship enough to get it out of the water, which the Navy says will likely be somewhere between July 6 and 8. Once its out of the water, the Navy will conduct a full survey of the ship.
One potential concern, according to Navy officials, is that the force of the collision may have warped the superstructure and created an alignment issue for the ship’s SPY-1 radar. Fixing that could add an enormous sum to the repair bill and could even be cost-prohibitive, but those assessments haven’t been completed yet.
Doss declined to comment on the alignment concerns, citing ongoing damage assessments and repair planning.
Just getting the ship out the water is a task in and of itself, said retired Capt. Gordan Van Hook, who was the chief engineer on the frigate Samuel B. Roberts when it struck a mine in 1988.
"Every ship has a docking plan for when you go into dry dock," Van Hook said in a telephone interview. "It involves putting blocks underneath the keel to support the ship. But if large parts of the hull compromised or penetrated it can create a lot of loads and stresses that the ship wasn’t meant to withstand and if you don’t do it correctly you can bend the keel or damage the strakes."
That means the ship’s docking plan needs to be redone to account for the damaged hull. Officials believe based on preliminary assessments that the keel of the Fitz made it through the collision ok. Fixing a broken keel would be another enormous cost driver, though the Navy managed to fix the Sammy B, which had a completely fractured keel.
Funding for the repairs would likely come from supplemental funding, said retired Adm. Robert Natter, who was the head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command when the destroyer Cole was attacked by terrorists in Yemen and needed repair.
"The natural place for the Navy to go for the money for repairs would be the [Overseas Contingency Operations fund]," Natter said.
When the Navy had to pony up almost a quarter-of-a-billion dollars to fix Cole, the Navy tapped into a supplemental funding pot. Then-Sen. John Warner, R-Virginia, wrote up legislation to get the Navy the money it needed to fix the ship, Natter said.
Once the ship is in dry-dock, the Navy will complete a thorough assessment of what is wrong with the ship and will get estimates of how much it’s going to cost. In the case of the Cole, it cost the Navy about $250 million – or about two-and-a-half F-35s – to complete the repairs.
The most likely scenario for the repair is that the Navy will have to send Fitz home on a heavy-lift vessel, said Bryan Clark, a retired submariner and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
"There is no way they can get it repaired overseas," Clark said. "What they are doing now is trying to determine whether it can be repaired enough to make it home on its own power or if they should put it on a heavy-lift ship. From there it’s going to go into a long repair period at one of the private yards."
Clark said General Dynamics NASSCO in San Diego would be a logical place to do the repair.
The Cole was taken to Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, where she was built, on board the Heavy Lift Ship Blue Marlin.
For Cole, Ingalls cut out the damaged section of the ship, refabricated the new section and welded it back into the ship. In all the repair replaced 550 tons of steel and both main engines, per a 2002 press release.
As for the ship's crew, they are returning to work gradually and beginning to get back to a normal routine, Doss said.
"The crew is resuming their normal routine incrementally – standing some in port watches as well as drydock preparations," Doss wrote. "Fitzgerald engineers are conducting the defueling process right now for example.
"The entire waterfront continues to support Fitzgerald Sailors and their families and I would stress that resuming their routine at a measured pace is an important part of the healing process."
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News. Before that, he reported for Navy Times.