Search underway for missing sailors; Navy chief orders probe


SINGAPORE — The U.S. Navy ordered a broad investigation Monday into the performance and readiness of the Pacific-based 7th Fleet after the USS John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker in Southeast Asian waters, leaving 10 U.S. sailors missing and others injured.

It was the second major collision in the past few months involving the Navy’s 7th Fleet. Seven sailors died in June when the USS Fitzgerald and a container ship collided in waters off Japan.

Vessels and aircraft from the U.S., Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia were searching for the missing sailors. Four other sailors were evacuated by a Singaporean navy helicopter to a hospital in the city-state for treatment of non-life-threatening injuries, the Navy said. A fifth was taken to the hospital by ambulance after the destroyer arrived in Singapore under its own power, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore said.

“It is the second such incident in a very short period of time — inside of three months — and very similar as well,” Navy Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, told reporters at the Pentagon. “It is the last of a series of incidents in the Pacific fleet in particular and that gives great cause for concern that there is something out there we are not getting at.”

Richardson ordered a pause in operations for the next couple of days to allow fleet commanders to get together with leaders, sailors and command officials and identify any immediate steps that need to be taken to ensure safety.

A broader U.S. Navy review will look at the 7th Fleet’s performance, including personnel, navigation capabilities, maintenance, equipment, surface warfare training, munitions, certifications and how sailors move through their careers. Richardson said the review will be conducted with the help of the Navy’s office of the inspector general, the safety center and private companies that make equipment used by sailors.

There was no immediate explanation for the collision. Singapore, at the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula, is one of the world’s busiest ports and a U.S. ally, with its naval base regularly visited by American warships.

Richardson was asked whether the collision was intentional on either side or was the result of cyber sabotage. He said there was no indication that the collision was intentional and said cyber issues would be explored just as they were during the probe of the USS Fitzgerald collision. Later, Richardson tweeted that that there were no indications of cyber intrusion or sabotage, but that the review will consider all possibilities.

The McCain had been heading to Singapore on a routine port visit after conducting a sensitive freedom-of-navigation operation last week by sailing near one of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea. The collision east of Singapore between the 505-foot destroyer guided missile destroyer and the 600-foot Alnic MC ripped a gaping hole in the destroyer’s hull.

The Navy’s 7th Fleet said “significant damage” to the McCain’s hull resulted in the flooding of adjacent compartments including crew berths, machinery and communications rooms. A damage control response prevented further flooding, it said.

The destroyer was damaged on its port side aft, or left rear, in the 5:24 a.m. collision about 4.5 nautical miles from Malaysia’s coast but was able to sail on to Singapore’s naval base. Malaysia’s Maritime Enforcement Agency said the area is at the start of a designated sea lane for ships sailing into the busy Singapore Strait.

The Singapore government said no crew were injured on the Liberian-flagged Alnic, which sustained damage to a compartment at the starboard, or right, side at the front of the ship some 23 feet above its waterline. The ship had a partial load of fuel oil, according to the Greek owner of the tanker, Stealth Maritime Corp. S.A., but there were no reports of a spill.

Several safety violations were recorded for the oil tanker at its last port inspection in July, one fire safety deficiency and two safety-of-navigation problems. The official database for ports in Asia doesn’t go into details and the problems apparently were not serious enough for the Liberian-flagged vessel to be detained by the port authority.

By Lolita C. Baldor, Annabelle Liang and Stephen Wright

Associated Press