Vice Admiral Joseph P. Aucoin

USS Fitzgerald Collision Press Conference

delivered 18 June 2017, Commander Fleet Activities, Yokosuka, Japan

Audio mp3 of Address

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[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]1

So, good afternoon. Konichiwa. I'm Joe Aucoin, Commander of 7th Fleet. Thanks for coming out here today. It gives me an opportunity to talk to you. We do have a number of Japanese journalists with us, so we're going to do translation and pause for a second.2

So, I just want to start. I got a couple of prepared remarks, and then I'll open it up for questions. As some of you know, yesterday the [USS] Fitzgerald experienced extensive damage and flooding as a result of a collision with a Filipino merchant ship at approximately 0220 in the morning, 17 June, 10 miles off the coast of Honshu, Japan, approximately 56 miles south of Tokyo.

The damage was significant. This was not a small collision. It was right near the pilot's house and there is a big puncture, a big gash, underneath the waterline also.  So the ship suffered a lot of damage. Three compartments were severely damaged, one machinery room, and two berthing areas for 116 of the crew, and also the ship's skipper's cabin, as well.

So this was a severe emergency, but the ship's crew was swift and responsive, and I can't tell you how proud I am of the crew for what they did to save the ship. Through the heroic efforts of the ship's crew, they prevented the ship from foundering, or even sinking last night.  So they were able to save the ship and they were able to bring it back yesterday on it's own power, back here to Yokosuka, and you can see the ship behind me. So the ship and the crew, they performed as we expected, very professionally. They were able to bring the ship back.

The ship is called the "Fighting Fitz." It's named after a lieutenant during the Vietnam War that was awarded the Navy Cross for his valor during the Vietnam War.

So we owe it to our families and the Navy to understand what happened. Under my authority, we will launch a JAGMAN investigation into this collision. I will appoint a flag officer to lead that investigation, and there will also be a safety investigation.  The U.S. Coast Guard is to take the lead on the marine casualty investigation.  And we recognize there are other organizations that have vested interests in this incident, and we expect them to conduct their own separate investigations, and more information will be forthcoming on those investigations.  And I'm not going to speculate on how long those investigations will take.

As you're aware, we have found the remains of a number of our missing shipmates, and our deepest sympathies go out to the families of those shipmates. So out of concern for the families and the notification process, I will decline to state how many we have found at this time. We owe it to the families and friends of these shipmates and hope you can respect this process.  So we will update you after the notification process is complete.

We have transferred the remains to the Yokosuka Naval Hospital. The families are being notified, and are being provided support that they all need at this difficult time. Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers.  So their loved ones are what make our navy great, the strength of my fleet are my people, so this loss is something we all feel. The names of the deceased will be released soon.  Unfortunately, we don't have the details regarding the conditions during the final moments, but hope that the investigation may shed some light on that matter.

At the same time, I really would like to express my heartfelt thanks to our Japanese allies, particularly the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force, with their tremendous support. They are with us the whole time, and they really helped us out a lot.  Also, the Japanese Coast Guard helped us a lot with their helicopters, and they were the first on the scene. We had to medevac the commanding officer, Commander Bryce Benson, who was medevac'd back to the hospital by a JMSDF helicopter.  We also had to medevac two other sailors with minor injuries, and they were medevac'd via helicopter back to the Navy Yokosuka Hospital, and they are still there undergoing treatment.

Since this started, we've set up a USS Fitzgerald Emergency Family Assistance Center within hours, and we've disseminated the phone numbers with hotlines to social media and Navy websites, for all the families here, and also back in the United States.  So this support center remains open for chaplain and counselor care. It's 24/7, and it's over -- located on our base in the Family Support Center.

But to be clear, my focus is on the families, the grieving family members, the crew, and the friends of the USS Fitzgerald.  I wish you could have seen it last night when the ship came back. The whole Navy family came together. We had tremendous support from everyone within the base, from the Fleet Activities Yokosuka, to the NWR, USO, Red Cross, from the embassy, from the JMSDF, from the Japanese Coast Guard. It was really gratifying and heartfelt, the response we got from everyone, to rally around our ship upon it's return.

So I ask you to keep thoughts and prayers for the family members and the crew. And please respect their privacy as we work through this, as we get answers to some of the questions I'm sure that are out there, with the investigation.  So the next update will be at 6 p.m.

Thank you for coming out here, and I'll answer questions from you.


Question: Vice Admiral, thank you for doing this briefing; two quick questions. Firstly, the damage was sustained on the starboard side of the Fitzgerald. There's some speculation that would indicate that it was at fault, in this case based on the maritime procedures where ships with the other ship on the starboard side is supposed to give way. Can you comment on that? And secondly, will you be giving the Japanese investigation access to the crew of the Fitzgerald?

Vice Admiral Aucoin: Yeah, you know, I'm not going to speculate on what happened, but it will be a full and thorough investigation. But for me to say what happened at 2:20 in the morning, yesterday, unknown. So we're going to appoint a flag officer. We're going to cooperate with all the stakeholders in this, especially the Japanese, but we'll get those answers. I don't have them right now.

I would just add too, you're right. It's on the right side of the ship, so you can't see it from here. But it was extensive damage. You can tell from the way the ship is listing that it was significant, and really I'm proud of the crew, how they reacted and were able to save the ship. 

Question: Thank you for this opportunity. You said you're launching the investigation. Does that mean you are going to decide the right of our jurisdiction given to you by the agreement between Japanese and U.S. governments, and that means you are not going to let Japanese Coast Guard lead the investigation -- is that right?

Vice Admiral Aucoin: I'm not going to -- There will be a number of investigations. I know, under my authority, I'm going to do a JAGMAN investigation. That's a Judge Advocate General Manual Investigation, and then appoint a flag officer. There's at least two other investigations, and of course, we want to cooperate with the Japanese if they want to do an investigation. We will work hand in hand with our Japanese partners.

Question: You might allow Japanese Coast Guard to interview some sailors?

Vice Admiral Aucoin: Yes, we will cooperate fully. 

Question: This is Tim Kelly from Reuters. You say the damage is significant. The ship [inaudible]. Is the ship salvageable, and will you scrap it or would you, if the repairs are undertaken, are we talking weeks, months, years...Can you give us some indication?

Vice Admiral Aucoin: Yeah, Tim, the damage is significant. Right now the focus is on the crew and the families. The ship is salvageable. It's extensive though. It will require some significant repairs. But you will see the USS Fitzgerald back as one of our warships here, but it will require some time.

Question: It will take months? Over a year maybe?

Vice Admiral Aucoin: I think it will take months, hopefully under a year.

Question: [English interpreter for question asked by reporter in Japanese language.] So, thank you very much for having this press conference. The sailors who were missing, do we know where they are yet? Have you found anything of the ones who are still missing?

Vice Admiral Aucoin: Yes, we have. But I'm not going to go, because we want to, out of respect for the families, as far as identification, notifying next of kin, we have found a number of our missing shipmates. But I'm not going to go into the exact numbers.

Question: Thank you, I'm from the Washington Post. Can you tell us how many bridge crews were on duty at the time of the collision, please? And was all the navigational equipment working correctly?

Vice Admiral Aucoin: I don't have the exact number of the crew, but I'm sure they had a full complement, what's normally expected during a watch. As far as to the systems and all that, we're going to do an investigation to find out what exactly happened.

Question:  Janis for [inaudible] and NBC. Just to clarify on the sailors who were considered missing, are you saying that the search is now called off? That you consider that you have no more sailors who are still missing?

Vice Admiral Aucoin: We've discontinued the search and rescue. We have found a number of them. I'm not going to go into the number, but hopefully here very soon -- and this is out of respect for the family, you've gotta understand that, that we want to make sure that we have the notification done to the grieving families. We don't want to come out with something prematurely. We want to make sure the family members are notified, so I am not being very definitive on this. So please work with us on that. As soon as we have that notification process done, we will come out with the names and more information.

Question:  The search is finished. The search is over.

Vice Admiral Aucoin: The search and rescue is over. 

Question: Admiral, Alexandra Field, CNN. First of all, our condolences to all those who are grieving --

Vice Admiral Aucoin: Thank you.

Question: -- in the Navy and family members, today. This is delicate; this is sensitive, right now. We understand that. Is there anything that you can share about these circumstances that those sailors were facing in those few moments down in those berthing areas? Do we know if these sailors were awake at the time of collision? If they were awake afterwards? If they tried to escape? And also, if you could just very briefly give us the mechanics of this crash. Are we talking about a T-bone a side-swiping? Were there any calls for help in advance? Were any efforts to maneuver to avoid a collision tried at all?

Vice Admiral Aucoin: Okay. Thanks for your comments there. So it was at 2:20 in the morning. We do have watch teams that are awake throughout the night, but a significant part of the crew was sleeping. And as I said before, two compartments that housed 116 of the crew are in those compartments, and it was a significant impact to the side of the ship. And you can't see most of the damage. The damage is mostly underneath the waterline and it's a large gash near the keel of the ship and so the water flow was tremendous.

And so there wasn't a lot of time in those spaces that were open to the sea. And as you can see now, the ship is still listing, and so they had to fight the ship to keep it above the surface. And so it was traumatic. As to how much warning they had, I don't know. That's going to be found out during the investigation. But it was a significant impact that the crew had to fight very hard to keep the ship afloat.

Question: And on the mechanics of the crash itself, sideswipe, T-bone, calls for helps, efforts to maneuver to avoid it [inaudible].

Vice Admiral Aucoin: I don't know those kind of things, but it was a significant impact to the side of the ship. In order to get a puncture like that, I'll just leave that they were hit on the side by the tanker, 29,000 ton merchant freighter.

Question: Is the Commander stable enough to answer any questions at this point?

Vice Admiral Aucoin: He was medevac'd. His cabin was destroyed. He's lucky to be alive and he's at the hospital right now. He's undergoing treatment, but he's not available for questions.

1 Audio has been edited for English language content only. Moderator comments and repeated words and fillers also edited out for economy.

2 See note above.

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Page Updated: 6/21/17

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