It remains unclear when the sailor settled into his bottom rack on Aug. 21, as the destroyer John S. McCain neared the halfway point of its deployment and ventured into some of the world’s busiest waters near Singapore.
He might have just gone to bed. Maybe he was about to wake up. Work shifts vary, and crews live with an erratic sleep schedule.
The sailor was close to the floor, on the lowest of three stacked bunks, his only narrow slice of personal space on the McCain, a welcome privacy when he slid the bunk’s curtain closed.
He was one of many in his living quarters that morning, an area with a modest array of racks and a small lounge, collectively comprising berthing 3.
At 5:23 a.m. local time, the Alnic MC, a hulking oil tanker weighing more than three times the McCain, collided with the destroyer, leaving a 28-foot gash in the ship’s left side and trapping the unidentified sailor in his rack.
Ten McCain sailors would be crushed or drown in their berthing that morning.
The ship scrambled after the impact. Sailors on the job were knocked off their feet. Others thought the ship was under attack.
Down in berthing 3, somehow, that trapped sailor was still alive.
“His rack was lifted off the floor as a result of the collision, which likely prevented him from drowning in the rising water, and he was trapped at an angle between racks that had been pressed together,” the Navy’s report states.
The trapped sailor could see light through a hole in the rack. His foot was the only part of him exposed beyond the tangled metal. He could hear water, and felt it rising when it reached his foot. He could smell fuel.
“He attempted to push his way out of the rack, but every time he moved the space between the racks grew smaller,” the report states.
Other sailors searched the chaos as he screamed for help.
“Ship, Shipmate, Self,” the sacred credo of a crew, was urgently personified.
“Rescuers used an axe to cut through the debris, a crow bar to pull the lockers apart piece by piece, and rigged a pulley to move a heavy locker,” the report states. “Throughout the long process, his rescuers assured him by touching his foot.”
The sailor was freed after an hour of rescue, the last to escape berthing 3. He turned his back to the wreckage and climbed to safety with his rescuers.
“He had scrapes and bruises all over his body, suffered a broken arm, and had hit his head,” the report states. “He was unsure whether he remained conscious throughout the rescue.”
Amidst the carnage, he was a lucky one.
All 10 deaths took place below the trapped sailor, below the waterline, in berthing 5, where water mixed with fuel and flooded so furiously that only two sailors down there at the time of impact escaped, according to the Navy’s account.
The tanker and the destroyer were stuck together for minutes after the Alnic’s bulbous bow struck the McCain’s port side, according to the report.
Seventeen sailors were housed in berthing 5, a 15-foot wide space that was compacted into a five-foot sliver.
The report suggests that the 10 who died either drowned or were crushed by the impact.
Twelve sailors were in berthing 5 at the time of the collision.
Most of them never had a chance to escape, nor did their shipmates have a chance to save them.
“Based on the size of the hole, and the fact that Berthing 5 is below the waterline the space likely fully flooded in less than a minute after the collision,” the report says.
Just two berthing 5 sailors escaped the incoming seawater, which was made toxic as it mixed with the spilling contents of a ruptured fuel tank.
Debris had also blocked one of two routes out of berthing 5, making escape even harder for sailors.
The two survivors of berthing 5 happened to not be in their racks at the time of the collision, the report said.
“The first Sailor was on the second step of the ladder-well leading to the deck above when the collision occurred,” the report states. “The impact of the collision knocked him to the ground, leaving his back and legs bruised.”
Fuel pooled around him as he scrambled back onto and up the ladder.
Covered in fuel and water, the sailor said he had not seen anyone else behind him as he escaped.
“He reported seeing other Sailors in the lounge area, one preparing for watch duties and another standing near his rack,” the report states. “Both of these Sailors were lost, along with the eight shipmates who were in their racks at the time of the collision.”
The second sailor to escape berthing 5 heard a cacophony of crashing metal before the water rushed in.
“Within seconds, water was at chest level,” according to the report. “The passageway leading to the ladder-well was blocked by debris, wires and other wreckage hanging from the overhead.”
The sailor knew he would have to climb over the debris to reach the ladder and ascend.
“As he started his climb across the debris to the open scuttle, the water was already within a foot of the overhead,” the report states. “So he took a breath, dove into the water, and swam towards the ladder-well.”
Bumping into debris as he groped his way to safety, the sailor came up twice for air as the water climbed higher. He eventually pulled himself along pipes to get to the light.
While the Navy’s report found a lack of training contributed to the McCain’s collision with the tanker, training likely saved this sailor’s life.
“The Sailor found that the blindfolded egress training, a standard that requires training to prepare Sailors for an emergency and was conducted when he reported to the command, was essential to his ability to escape,” according to the report.
The first sailor to escape berthing 5 alerted a shipmate that others were still in there.
That shipmate reached the closed hatch to the area, opened the scuttle within the hatch and saw only water below.
“He tried to enter the space, but was forced back up the ladder by the pressure of the escaping air and rising water, which within seconds had risen to within a foot of the hatch,” the report states.
He saw the second escaping sailor swimming toward the hatch and pulled him out of the water.
“This was the second and last Sailor to escape from Berthing 5,” the report states. “His body was scraped, bruised and covered with chemical burns from being submerged in the mixture of water and fuel.”
Another sailor described seeing “a green swirl of rising seawater and foaming fuel” approaching the top of the scuttle, threatening to flood the area above.
The sailors saw no one else swimming up from the caustic waters, and they began trying to close the scuttle to prevent further flooding.
“By then, so much water was already coming up through the scuttle that it was difficult to close and secure,” the report states. “The fuel mixed in with the water made one of the Sailor’s hands so slippery that he cut himself while using the wrench designed to secure the scuttle, but the two were able to secure it to stop the rapid flooding of the ship.”
Trapped in their racks
While the flooding was not as rapid or severe in berthing 3, the report reveals a variety of horrors for its occupants.
The left side of berthing 3 sustained a massive hole to its bulkhead after the collision, according to the report.
“Racks and lockers detached from the walls and were thrown about, leaving jagged metal throughout the space,” the report states. “Cables and debris hung from the ceiling.”
One berthing 3 sailor suffered injuries as the wall next to him blew apart in the collision. He was later medically evacuated from the ship.
As water and fuel made the goings slippery, the injured sailor and his comrades made their way to a ladder and up to safety, the report states.
“Limited lighting guided the remaining Sailors as they left the berthing space,” the report says. “Sailors had to climb over lockers and other debris to escape, using the high vantage point to also minimize the risk of electrocution from traveling through the rising water.”
Some emerged in their underwear, and were bruised, bloodied and covered in fuel.
Several berthing 3 sailors were initially trapped in their racks after the collision, but squirmed free as twisted metal shifted when the Alnic detached from the McCain, according to the report.
Sailors came to the rescue of one who remained pinned down with only his hand and foot visible, according to the report.
The sailor had been sleeping at the time of the crash.
“When he opened his eyes, he understood he was pinned in his rack, with one of his shoulders stuck between his rack and the rack above,” the report states. “He felt both air and water moving around him. He could hear shouting and began shouting himself.”
Rescuers heard the shouting and worked to find him under the dim light of a single battle lantern as the water reached knee level.
“The debris was too heavy for the rescuers to move…a ‘jaw of life’ cutting device was required to cut through the metal, separate the panels of the rack, and pull the panels out of the way,” the report states.
The sailor was pulled free of the wreckage after about 30 minutes.
Amidst the chaos in berthings 3 and 5, damage control teams mobilized to save the stricken ship.
Other berthing areas were flooded and lost at a slower rate, but the ship was able to head toward Singapore’s Changi Naval Base on its own power about an hour after the collision, the report states.
Most of the ship’s navigational aids were still operational, but those on the bridge saw multiple illuminated warnings and alerts, which made them wonder if the information was reliable, according to the report.
As such, the crew relied on “seaman’s eye” to stay on track as they headed to port at about 3 knots.
“Lack of ventilation across the ship raised concerns based on the amount of fuel that had spilled and the risks posed by rising temperatures,” the report states. “The temperatures also drove Sailors to the flight deck in order to escape the heat.”
Medical teams set up a triage center in the mess hall shortly after the collision, where they splinted broken bones, treated lacerations and chemical burns and administered antibiotics, the report states.
Four sailors were helicoptered off the ship as it made its way to port.
The amphibious assault ship America reached the McCain as she approached Singapore, offering medical assistance. Once pier side, America also provided meals for the McCain crew and beds for those whose berthing had been lost.
In all, 48 McCain sailors required medical treatment after the collision.
The 10 lost McCain sailors are Chief Electronics Technician Charles N. Findley, 31, Chief Interior Communications Electrician Abraham Lopez, 39, Electronics Technician 1st Class Kevin S. Bushell, 26, Electronics Technician 1st Class Jacob D. Drake, 21, Information Systems Technician 1st Class Timothy T. Eckels Jr., 23, Information Systems Technician 1st Class Corey G. Ingram, 28, Electronics Technician 2nd Class Dustin L. Doyon, 26, Electronics Technician 2nd Class John H. Hoagland III, 20, Interior Communications Electrician 2nd Class Logan S. Palmer, 23, and Electronics Technician 2nd Class Kenneth A. Smith, 22.
It took dive teams a week to recover their bodies from the mangled wreckage, according to the report. All 10 were posthumously advanced.
At noon on Aug. 21, divers found the 28-foot hole in the McCain, a wound that penetrated not only the hull, but an internal fuel tank as well.
The fuel in the water created dangers for the dive team, the report states.
“The large amount of debris and structural damage required the divers to move slowly about the ship, even cutting holes through racks to access parts of the space,” the report states. “Visibility in Berthing 5 was very poor given the debris and lack of light. The divers had to move about the space almost exclusively by feel.
“The dive team conducted nearly continuous dive operations over a period of seven days until all ten of the Sailors in Berthing 5 were recovered.”
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson wrote in a memo accompanying the line of duty investigation that the “command Admiralty investigations” would be withheld “in order to protect the legal interests of the United States Government and the families of those Sailors who perished.”
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.