Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez, former commander of the USS John S. McCain (DDG-56), entered a guilty plea to a single charge of negligence for his role in a tragic collision between the Arleigh Burke Class guided missile destroyer and the Alnic MC, a merchant ship, that took place off the coast of Singapore last year. The incident resulted in the deaths of 10 sailors aboard the McCain. Sanchez said,
I am ultimately responsible and stand accountable. I will forever question my decisions that contributed to this tragic event.”
Following Sanchez’ agreement to retire from service, his punishments included a formal letter of reprimand and a forfeiture of about $6,000 worth of pay and allowances. His criminal record will show the court martial martial as a conviction of a federal misdemeanor.
Sanchez’s plea agreement saved him from facing more serious charges, including negligent homicide and hazarding a vessel. Had he been found guilty, Sanchez likely would have faced jail time for those offenses.
The Navy’s investigation into the incident found that Sanchez ignored the recommendation of his operations officer, navigator and executive officer — all of whom suggested posting the ship’s most experienced “sea and anchor detail” on the bridge as the McCain traversed the heavily trafficked waterway. Instead, Sanchez left a young and inexperienced helmsman in control of the vessel.
According the Navy’s report, that helmsman began having difficulty steering the ship while simultaneously managing the throttles. He was ordered to transfer control of the vessel’s throttle to another workstation on the bridge (Lee Helm station), but the shift in control function was not executed properly, resulting in a loss of control and confusion on the bridge as they attempted to correct the mistake. The investigation read,
Although JOHN S MCCAIN was now on a course to collide with ALNIC, the Commanding Officer and others on the ship’s bridge lost situational awareness. No one on the bridge clearly understood the forces acting on the ship, nor did they understand the ALNIC’s course and speed relative to JOHN S MCCAIN during the confusion.”
The senior enlisted sailor in charge of training aboard the McCain, Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jeffery Butler, claimed on Thursday that none of the crew had received sufficient training in the operation of the new bridge equipment. According to him, he had received no more than technical manuals and a one-hour tutorial from a more experienced sailor. Butler said during his own summary court martial hearing on Thursday,
[It was] difficult to get training. We asked for the techs to come over, but they never showed. With time and more training, I could have stopped all that.”
Butler also entered a guilty plea to his charge of dereliction of duty. He received a punitive reduction in rank to E-6.
Although the McCain put out an open signal to indicate that it had lost control, the crew made no attempt to contact the bridge of the approaching merchant ship they found themselves on a collision course with.
“We put this on this 18-year-old,” Sanchez said. “I did not put him in a position to succeed.”
Soon thereafter, the nose of the Alnic MC crashed into the McCain, penetrating the hull of the destroyer below the waterline and flooding the berthing compartment with sea water.
“Your honor, as the commanding officer, I am ultimately responsible and stand accountable for the actions and decisions leading to the [McCain] collision and death of my ten sailors on 21 August 2017,” Sanchez said in a statement. “I will forever question my decisions that contributed to this tragic event and fully recognize that no actions or desires will bring our sailors back.”
He went on to say that he should have followed the recommendations of his staff and posted a more experienced bridge detail for the transit, or that he should have taken charge at the first signs of trouble.