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'Wall of water': Lawsuits detail deadly Navy collision

Courtesy Associated Press
Posted at 5:46 PM, Nov 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-18 18:46:43-05

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Survivors and descendants of those killed when a container ship collided with a U.S. Navy destroyer off Japan's coast are suing the ship's Japanese charterer, according to a lawsuit filed Monday that details the survivors' scramble for safety as water rushed in.

In dramatic detail, the lawsuit against Tokyo-based NYK Line lays out how survivors of the collision saw water rushing at them as they scrambled for the exits and, in some cases, had to swim for their lives. Seven U.S. sailors were killed in the collision that happened June 17, 2017, as the two ships were trying to merge into heavy traffic. An underwater gash sent water flooding into two sleeping compartments at a time when most of the nearly 300 sailors on board would have been sleeping.

Sailor Jackson Schrimsher was one of the last to make it out of the sleeping quarters alive, according to the lawsuit. He recalled a "wall of water" coming at him as he tried to make it to the door - "scuttle" in Navy parlance.

"He remembers a locker falling over onto him and a Sailor pushing him out from under it. By the time he reached the port-side scuttle, he was completely submerged. Plaintiff Schrimsher stuck his hand up out of the water through the scuttle, and was pulled to safety," the lawsuit said.

The lawsuits allege personnel aboard the ACX Crystal failed to follow procedures intended to warn their own crew and nearby ships of impending danger. For example, the lawsuit says it wasn't until one minute before the collision that ACX Crystal operators took the ship off autopilot and tried to evade a collision. The ACX Crystal also failed to sound any short blasts to alert the USS Fitzgerald of its position, the lawsuit alleges.

In a statement, David Schloss, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that the collision was "entirely avoidable."

"The negligent and reckless conduct of the Crystal's crew led to the horrific drowning deaths of seven young Navy sailors. These brave young men leave behind children, parents, spouses, and siblings who continue to try to make sense of the senseless," Schloss said.

A request for comment submitted on the company's website was not immediately returned.

The two lawsuits were filed Monday in federal court in Louisiana on behalf of relatives of the seven dead sailors and 40 sailors who survived as well as some family members of the survivors. The lawsuit is asking in excess of $287 million. The lawsuit says NYK Line had "principal responsibility for the navigation and/or operation of the ACX Crystal."

The lawsuit laid out the fear and panic likely experienced by the seven sailors who died as water flooded into the sleeping compartment.

"None of the decedent Sailors were killed by the initial impact of the collision. On the contrary, all decedent Sailors suffered from a significant period of extreme conscious pain and suffering and pre-death fright from the time of the collision until their deaths by drowning," the lawsuit states.

The collision was one of two deadly accidents involving American Navy personnel that summer. On Aug. 21, the USS John S. McCain - a Navy destroyer - collided with a tanker near Singapore. Ten sailors aboard the McCain died.

The Navy conducted a series of investigations and reviews into the two collisions, concluding that the accidents were the result of poor judgment, bad decision-making and widespread training and leadership failures by the commanders and crew who didn't quickly recognize and respond to unfolding emergencies.

The Navy concluded that the two crashes, as well as a third collision in May and a ship grounding, were all avoidable, and resulted from widespread failures by the crews and commanders who didn't quickly recognize and respond to unfolding emergencies.

A report recommended about 60 changes to address the problems - from improved training on seamanship, navigation and the use of ship equipment to more basic changes to improve sleep and stress management for sailors.

The Navy dropped all criminal charges against the commanding officer of the ship, as well at two other junior officers. One other junior officer pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of dereliction of duty.