SAN DIEGO — The Navy Friday honored 36 sailors for their bravery last June as they battled “constant peril from flooding, electrocution … and noxious fumes” for 16 hours in the aftermath of the collision involving the USS Fitzgerald, which killed two San Diego-area men and five other sailors.
At the ceremony, Friday in Yokosuka, Japan, Vice Adm. Phil Sawyer, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, awarded the 36 Fitzgerald sailors with the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, which is given to service members who “distinguish themselves by heroism, outstanding achievement or meritorious service.”
“Following the collision, which claimed the lives of seven Fitzgerald sailors, the crew fought back against progressive flooding across 19 spaces for more than 16 consecutive hours,” Navy officials said. “Facing constant peril from flooding, electrocution, structural damage and noxious fumes, these sailors prevented further loss of life and ultimately saved the ship.”
The Fitzgerald’s two ombudsmen were also honored Friday with a Flag Letter of Commendation for their support to families of victims.
A Navy spokeswoman in San Diego said she did not know if any of the sailors honored were from the San Diego region. The Fitzgerald crew was part of the 7th Fleet, which is stationed in Japan.
The guided-missile destroyer collided with the Philippines-flagged merchant vessel ACX Crystal on June 17, sustaining severe damage that flooded three compartments, including a berthing area where 35 sailors were asleep. A preliminary investigation detailed how the sleeping sailors had about 90 seconds to flee the rapidly flooding sleeping area.
Then-Yeoman 3rd Class Shingo Alexander Douglass, 25, of San Diego, and then-Fire Controlman 2nd Class Carlos Victor Ganzon Sibayan, 23, of Chula Vista, were among those killed. The duo, and the five other victims, were posthumously promoted in August.
“The occupants of Berthing 2 described a rapidly flooding space, estimating later that the space was nearly flooded within a span of 30 to 60 seconds,” said a 41-page report from one of the preliminary investigations, which estimated the sailors had no more than 90 seconds to escape.
“By the time the third sailor to leave arrived at the ladder, the water was already waist deep,” the report said. “Debris, including mattresses, furniture, an exercise bicycle, and wall lockers, floated into the aisles between racks in Berthing 2.”
The ladder by which the sailors escaped was on the port side, and water quickly climbed to their necks. The seven who didn’t survive were in starboard racks, and the only one who escaped by taking a route on that side went unconscious for a time and wasn’t sure how he got out.
Just more than two months later, the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain, also based in Japan, was involved in a similar crash with a merchant vessel in the South China Sea. That collision killed 10 sailors, and the combination of both crashes led to several top officers losing their jobs.
The Fitzgerald will change its home port to Mississippi in December as it returns stateside to undergo repairs. A Houston-based company is in the process of heavy-lifting the destroyer onto the deck of a larger ship to sail it back to the country.
The Navy has not yet determined how long it will take or how much it will cost to repair the Fitzgerald.