Hi all. My name is T. Christian Miller but everybody calls me “T” — a family nickname. I’m one of the investigative reporters here at ProPublica who recently wrote about the collisions of two US Navy destroyers with two cargo ships in 2017, resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors. The two incidents were the deadliest seaborne accidents in the Navy in four decades.

Our first story reconstructed the voyage of the USS Fitzgerald.

Our second one examined how senior Navy leaders knew about problems with training, repair and manpower shortages, but did little to fix them.

Our third piece looked at the lives of the 17 sailors who died.

Proof: https://i.redd.it/c5adc8gdheg21.jpg

Comments: 138 • Responses: 37  • Date: 

orangejulius21 karma

It sounds like the Navy has issues with working people to death and failing to train sailors to specialize in jobs that might be career dead ends, but essential to safety on these ships.

The budget for the Navy is colossal so it seems like it's not a lack of resources. Is it fair to characterize this as a cultural crisis? "I worked myself to death. Now everyone else can work themselves to death too."

ScribbleKid22 karma

The budget is huge -- but Congress plays a very important role in what happened. Congress has repeatedly failed to deliver budgets on time, and has never really come to terms with secuestration -- the withholding of funds. The Navy has a hard time planning without firm guidance from Congress.

ScribbleKid14 karma

Thanks all for your time and interest. You can keep posting questions. And also, keep sending tips for follow up! To my mailbox here or DMs on Twitter: @txtianmiller.

N8theGr814 karma

What were some of the most important "lessons learned" that resulted from the investigation?

ScribbleKid14 karma

The need to say no. Over and over, we heard that the Pentagon and the Navy has too many missions for the size of the fleet and the number of sailors.

N8theGr87 karma

Who do they need to say "no" to?

ScribbleKid15 karma

For the Fitzgerald, it was the very highest ranks in our military -- President Trump, the Secretary of Defense, the Chief of Naval Operations. As one sailor told us, it was exciting to be working in the 7th Fleet because you knew your actions were being tracked at the very highest levels, because of the importance of the 7th Fleet.

FuzzyBroccoli610 karma

What inspired you to pursue this investigation? What stood out about this case --who did you talk to and what did you read that made it clear to you that this deserved such a deep dive?

ScribbleKid7 karma

I've covered the military on and off since the beginning of the Iraq war. It's rare to see one deadly at sea accident, much less two. So I suspected it might have been a big deal on a policy basis. I also knew it had the potential to be a gripping story. And those are my favorite pieces: stories which marry high level policy, with on the ground reality.

orangejulius10 karma

In your estimate, has the Navy taken meaningful substantive steps to avoid these problems in the future?

What steps should they be taking in your view? What could Congress meaningfully do to guide the Navy here?

ScribbleKid12 karma

I think the answer to that question is one of the possible avenues we'd like to explore. The Navy has issued its own series of reports, and its own series of reforms. Congress, I believe, has awakened to the need to pressure the Navy to find out whether it has done what it said. And also, whether those reforms are sufficient. Here was a recent exchange between the head of the Pacific Command and Sen. Angus King, of Maine. https://www.propublica.org/article/navy-7th-fleet-armed-services-committee-hearing-philip-davidson-collisions

DrBoops9 karma

Can you tell us a little bit more about the methods you used to tell the story?

I was incredibly impressed with the presentation, visuals, and flow of the story.

ScribbleKid10 karma

This story was conceived from the start as knitting the narrative to the presentation. Our designer, Xaquin G.V., had worked with my editor on the New York Times much lauded Snowfall project: http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2012/snow-fall/index.html#/?part=tunnel-creek. Xaquin and our team of reporters worked extensively with experts in shipbuilding and naval architecture in an effort to deliver on that vision of a new Snowfall.

chronoserpent9 karma

Mr. Miller,

Thank you very much for your work on this piece. As an active-duty Surface Warfare Officer, I appreciate that you and your fellow journalists are shedding light on the systemic failures which led to our warships operating overtasked, undermanned, undertrained, and unmaintained. I served in the FDNF-J myself and our ship experienced its share of mishaps and near-mishaps, though through luck alone no injuries resulted. The "do anything", "adapt and overcome", "mission first, mission always" mentality was the expectation across the waterfront, and we never had the agency to to push back. The American people deserve to know what what is going on, and you provided a clear glimpse into the highest levels of the Navy.

I hope you have time to answer some questions I had about your work:

1) Training deficiencies were one of the causal factors you identified. You mentioned the ill-fated decision in 2003 to do away with Surface Warfare Officer School and instead send new Officers to ships with "SWOS-in-a-Box", a set of training CDs. I reported to my first ship in the FDNF in those dark days, and had zero classroom instruction until well after I was qualified as Officer of the Deck Underway, all from on-the-job-training. This was finally rescinded in 2012 with the introduction of the Basic and Advanced Division Officer Courses. New Officers attended BDOC shortly after checking in to their first ships and received "12 hours of instruction in Rules of the Road, 40 hours of instruction in Navigation, Seamanship, and Shiphandling (NSS), 30 hours of training in Conning Officer Virtual Environment (COVE)" amongst other topics in a 8 week course. One can always argue there should be more, but it was trending in a positive direction.

Coppock and Parker, as 2nd tour division officers, would have attended both Basic and Advanced courses, in addition to a full tour of experience. Womack was inexperienced but at least had BDOC and watches under instruction under his belt. (Arguably, two experienced 2nd tours on the team was probably planned to mitigate the Conn's inexperience) This bridge team received more training than other Officers had received for nearly a decade. Where did the training pipeline fail? Was it still not enough, was it ineffective? Or were individual proficiency and readiness/rest factors more significant elements of the collision than their individual training?

2) You mentioned in another comment that FTZ only passed seven of 22 certifications. Do you know which seven those were? I'm curious if they passed their Navigation certification.

3) In 2014 the Navy instituted the Optimized Fleet Response Plan in response to unpredictable cycles and extended deployments. This was supposed to force a more regular schedule of maintenance, training, deployment and sustainment. Was this implemented in the FDNF at all? I have not served in the FDNF since the implementation of the OFRP, but I recall in 2013-14 that they were implementing the Training Availiability (TRAV) which would be a locked in period of training and certifications after a ship completed a long maintenance period in order to complete the ship's certifications before she could get back underway and operational. Before this, I personally experienced a case were we pulled out of dry dock one week with a new Captain and significant crew turnover since we were last in the water, and were deployed in the East China Sea no more than 4 weeks afterwards with no underway training or workup period. The TRAV should have at least been working in the right direction, even if it was rushed and severely compressed compared to relatively leisurely stateside cycles. Did it fade away by 2017? Did they slip back to square one with waivering and practically hand-waving away certification requirements?

Thank you again for your work and for answering our questions here.

ScribbleKid4 karma

I'll do my best to answer: 1. You describe accurately the training of the officers on the bridge, as well as the decision to balance Womack with the experience of Coppock and Parker. Parker, fwiw, was actually a 3rd tour division officer. I cannot speak to the weight of training versus individual proficiency. 2. They were certified in 5/12 Tier 1 (Communications, Aviation, Engineering, Seamanship, Supply), 0/10 tactical warfare. 3) OFRP was never implemented in FDNF. It remains (to me at least) somewhat of a mystery as to why exactly this might be.

Tom_Brokaw_is_a_Punk4 karma

Parker, fwiw, was actually a 3rd tour division officer

Can you elaborate? Division officers don't do a third sea tour.

ScribbleKid5 karma

Yes -- she was not recommended for promotion on her previous ship and was doing one more sea tour to rehabilitate her career.

marlkarxIV8 karma

Did the navy/government try to stop you from reporting or investigating the incident?

ScribbleKid19 karma

The Navy just refused to really engage with us at all. We had been communicating with Navy public affairs folks since June 2018. Virtually every request we made was ignored or turned down. Higher leadership, we have been told, simply wants this story to go away.

coryrenton7 karma

Were any would-be whistleblowers punished or otherwise suppressed in ways you can't confirm but you do believe?

ScribbleKid9 karma

We documented such cases in our story. A lot of people believed that Tom Copeman, an admiral who warned about problems in readiness, was forced to retire early. Janine Davidson, who was undersecretary of the Navy, felt that she was stopped from talking to Congress.

BATIRONSHARK7 karma

In hindsight what mistakes in particular by the navy do you think most contributed to the crash ?and what do you think they should change for the future ?

ScribbleKid12 karma

Culturally speaking, it's balancing the 'can do' attitude. The 7th Fleet is an amazingly high tempo place. Our sailors and officers do an amazing job of making do with less. That, in general, is a good thing. But taken to its extreme, i.e., always doing more with less and never expecting it to be different, that attitude can, and did, lead to disaster.

davec797 karma

What fact surprised you the most during your investigation?

ScribbleKid18 karma

I actually ended up making a list called '27 Amazing Facts' about the Fitzgerald. Number one was the image of the ship's navigator using a hand-held Garmin to figure out the ship's position because all of the other sensors had failed. Number two was the image of the young sailor at helm who had never touched a steering control until 30 minutes prior to the collision.

orangejulius16 karma

I've moderated this subreddit a long time. I've seen people who served their friends pieces of their flesh in tacos and other indescribable pieces of the human experience. It's rare anything makes me think "what the actual fuck?" This did it.

ScribbleKid10 karma

Wow. Thanks!

davec793 karma

I actually ended up making a list called '27 Amazing Facts' about the Fitzgerald.

Is that list available anywhere?

ScribbleKid17 karma

It evolved into the top portion of our story: The Fitzgerald’s captain selected an untested team to steer the ship at night. He ordered the crew to speed through shipping lanes filled with cargo ships and fishing vessels to free up time to train his sailors the next day. At the time of the collision, he was asleep in his cabin.

The 26-year-old officer of the deck, who was in charge of the destroyer at the time of the crash, had navigated the route only once before in daylight. In a panic, she ordered the Fitzgerald to turn directly into the path of the Crystal.

The Fitzgerald’s crew was exhausted and undertrained. The inexperience showed in a series of near misses in the weeks before the crash, when the destroyer maneuvered dangerously close to vessels on at least three occasions.

The warship’s state of readiness was in question. The Navy required destroyers to pass 22 certification tests to prove themselves seaworthy and battle-ready before sailing. The Fitzgerald had passed just seven of these tests. It was not even qualified to conduct its chief mission, anti-ballistic missile defense.

A sailor’s mistake sparked a fire causing the electrical system to fail and a shipwide blackout a week before the mission resulting in the crash. The ship’s email system, for both classified and non-classified material, failed repeatedly. Officers used Gmail instead.

Its radars were in questionable shape, and it’s not clear the crew knew how to operate them. One could not be made to automatically track nearby ships. To keep the screen updated, a sailor had to punch a button a thousand times an hour. The ship’s primary navigation system was run by 17-year-old software.

SonorousBlack7 karma

What do you think Coppok's plea deal means for the Captain and other officers? Is such a plea deal extraordinary?

ScribbleKid6 karma

A plea deal isn't extraordinary -- but the criminal prosecution and threat of homicide charges is more unusual. Many people have made the argument that the Navy 'overcharged' the accused sailors to strong arm plea deals. That's something we're interested in, too.

As to Coppock's plea, the courts martial against Capt. Bryce Benson and his TAO, Lt. Natalie Combs, are in legal limbo and there is no clear answer as to when they will begin again.

lookatrashpanda7 karma

Is there any indication their on board GPS was acting funky? Possibly hacked satellites or interference from a foreign power?

There’s been some reporting about Russian cyber spoofing of GPS... and we’ve seen an oddly high number of military plane, ship, malfunctions over the past few years

ScribbleKid8 karma

That actually was an early focus of the Navy's investigation, for both the Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain. The Navy found no indication of any sort of cyber warfare.

frances816-4 karma

I have wondered the same thing. In both incident reports there was a Chinese ship closely following the merchant ship involved in the collisions. This never comes up. I find it interesting that both Navy ships were conducted a FONOP past South China Sea land. Now China is very vocal about being aggressive with our Navy ships. Isn't it possible china targeted the weakest links. Im not sticking up for big navy but there is also fault on the merchant ships for not acting when both had a clear view and knew they were going to hit a US Naval ship.

Twisp562 karma

fault on the merchant ships for not acting when both had a clear view and knew they were going to hit a US Naval ship.

Isn't it always the duty of the smaller ship to get out of the way?

Tom_Brokaw_is_a_Punk12 karma

No, although "The Law of Gross Tonnage" is a common joke amongst mariners.

The rules that govern who has the "right of way" between two ships are called the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, also know as "COLREGS" or simply The Rules of the Road.

The rules are fairly complex, but when two vessels are "crossing" the "give way vessel" is the one that has the other on her own port side.

Source: I drive Navy ships for a living.

ScribbleKid3 karma

And just to follow up, the FTZ was the giveway vessel. I don't immediately recall the status of the MCC.

Thatdude2536 karma

How do we, systemically, prevent these kinds of things from happening again? Obviously, collisions will happen at sea from time to time, they've been happening for centuries, but how do we make sure its a 'oh shit, we just had a collision' situation and not 'oh christ, not another one' situation?

ScribbleKid7 karma

So here's the most specific to the incident: post lookouts on both sides of the ship. That had been the practice, but it has been largely eliminated because of budget cuts and the idea that you can do more with less. Sailors have been stretched very thin in terms of having to do multiple jobs at the same time.

mscomies6 karma

How common is it for the Navy to use gmail for official business because of issues with SIPR/NIPR/the exchange server or whatever? Thats the sort of thing that causes corporate IT to flip out and the DoD people in charge of Opsec arent known to let that sort of thing slide either.

ScribbleKid6 karma

I don't know the answer to that question. But it was one of the amazing facts. One, that the Navy couldn't fix its own servers (some of the blades on the servers had apparently broken). Two, that officers had to sign up for gmail accounts simply to communicate. And three, that they were actually using Windows 2000 software to run their Voyage Management System, which is one of the chief navigational aids on board.

davec796 karma

Was there any discussion in how these incidents related to the USS Greeneville collision in 2001, and the USS San Francisco underwater collision in 2005? As in, were there lessons that were supposed to be learned from those two incidents that never got fully implemented?

ScribbleKid8 karma

The USS Greeneville came up several times, but in a strange context. We were told repeatedly -- I mean all the time -- that Navy submariners, especially the nuclear sub community, and Navy aviators do training and maintenance 'right.' And that the surface community -- the ship guys -- always lagged. So the comeback from surface folks was always, well, what about the Greeneville?

hicks4205 karma

Hi Christian

Thanks for your reporting.

Sorry for the hugeness of the question, but the process of reporting has always fascinated me.

How do you even begin reporting a story like this? What's your process? How do you use lessons learned from previous stories into your future reporting?

Thanks!

ScribbleKid3 karma

It is a huge question! The tldr answer is that every story is different and it's difficult to standardize. You want to develop sources. You want to gather documents. And you want to continually check your biases.

Krieger225 karma

Did the people you interviewed have any opinions on how to solve these structural issues? If yes, what were they?

ScribbleKid8 karma

Yes. I think the most common solution suggested to us was the Navy needs more people. Second was the need to cut back on the number of missions being carried out in the 7th Fleet. The first option is pretty obvious, but also pretty expensive.

BruLuc115 karma

From what you saw, was it common for junior sailors to be able to point out what went wrong and where - and for senior sailors to overlook these issues when brought to their attention? Or did the senior sailors just flat not see or try to see the issues at hand?

ScribbleKid5 karma

The chiefs knew there were issues, for sure. And so did junior and senior officers. It was just that everyone had accepted this mantra of, "It's 7th Fleet." Which was shorthand for get the job done, and don't complain.

JustAnotherFD5 karma

Is there anything that you weren't allowed access to, or anything you still want to know more about? Or even a 4th (or 5th) story about this still to be told?

ScribbleKid6 karma

There are more stories to be told, PLUS -- we're always in the market for tips. The one thing that I wish we had more access to were Navy leaders. The Navy denied our requests to do interviews with the chief of naval operations, Adm. John Richardson, or the Secretary of the Navy, Richard V. Spenser.

sdnavy5 karma

How hard was the Navy to work with on this? Did they try to impede you? Refuse to answer questions? Slow-walk your requests for information?

ScribbleKid13 karma

Here's my answer: we sent the Navy 10 pages of questions in October 2017. And we sent them again. And again. And again. We did not get a response until the week before the story was published, and they left most of the questions blank, or pasted in copy from their previous reports.

A little rant: we asked for a tour of a destroyer. Turned down. We asked to see the new unit stood up in Japan to address these issues, the Naval Surface Group West Pacific. Turned down. We actually went to Yokosuka and knocked on the front door to have a tour. Turned down. We asked for interviews with the top leaders in the Navy. Turned down. We asked to see a list of the reforms they had completed. Turned down.

I'm sure the Navy has a story to tell. They just weren't telling it to us.

KapitanKurt4 karma

Thank you and the team for the articles and the time here today. What plans, if any, does ProPublica have to develop and share DDG McCain’s story in a method similar to Fitzgerald?

ScribbleKid5 karma

We would love to dive into the McCain story as well. If you had particular insights, I'd love to talk. There are definitely more stories to come.

dlexysia4 karma

Are you aware of any changes that have been made in the 7th fleet or the Navy in general since the two accidents? In terms of mission optempo, ship maintenance, training, and personnel manning?

ScribbleKid5 karma

Certainly the Navy has stated that they have prioritized manning in FDNF Japan over CONUS. They say CRUDES ships are now fully at fit/fill. They have added training for officers and have improved simulator training. Overall, the Navy had 111 recommendations, of which they say they have completed 80%. They have so far not provided any specifics, however.

DerpDerpys3 karma

Hi and thanks for doing this, really well written articles. The Navy commissioned several reviews and working groups after the accidents, was there any indication that these made any difference or do you think their reports will end up like the 2010 one?

ScribbleKid2 karma

This is pretty much the central question now. We're working on figuring that out. Any help or advice appreciated.

Jasonwfranks3 karma

What's your response to Bryan McGrath's piece at WarOnTheRocks https://warontherocks.com/2019/02/the-fitzgerald-collision-in-search-of-the-onus/

Do you feel like you maybe mis-characterized or undervalued the onus of responsibility for the accidents, and that the crews of the ships were (ultimately) the most responsible?

ScribbleKid2 karma

I think his point was one of emphasis. Reasonable people can disagree. We tried to tell the story from the deck to the e-ring. I think we did that.

THill993 karma

I don't believe your article discussed any possible fault on the part of the other ships. Was there any?

kiwirish4 karma

The Rules of the Road at sea are deliberately written to ensure all parties are at fault.

ACX CRYSTAL was the stand on vessel in accordance with Rule 15 in a crossing situation and was obliged to keep her course and speed when risk of collision exists, or take bold action supplemented with whistle blasts to declare their intent. They did not do so.

In malpractice through Rule 17, the stand on vessel is obliged to take action by her manouevre alone as soon as it becomes apparent to her that the vessel required to keep out of the way is not taking sufficient action in compliance with these rules. They did not.

CRYSTAL is just as to blame for this collision as the FITZGERALD, however CRYSTAL is not an Aegis fitted Destroyer that should be well equipped with technology and professional mariners, the masters of their domain, equipped enough to avoid collisions. However FITZGERALD was a disaster waiting to happen.

ScribbleKid3 karma

Interesting point: The Navy used data from the Furuno radar on board the CRYSTAL to determine what occurred because it could not retrieve data from the SPS-67 on board and could only recover some data from SPS-73. The SPY was not radiating.

kiwirish3 karma

Oh shit I honestly wasn't expecting a reply!

I loved the read my dude, they were some great articles and ship navigation is a passion of mine. I shared it with our Fleet Navigation Officer and the other Navigators in the fleet to promulgate too.

A huge problem was definitely how broken the FITZ was, and their lack of training and maintenance schedule, in order to keep up with the OPTEMPO of FDNF. Lack of effective RADARs in my opinion is a ship stopper, in the modern age it is imperative that you have a working surface search RADAR.

However my opinion from an international Navy, is that the USN relies too heavily on instruments rather than the art of navigation, and traditional navigation techniques. In order to receive my Basic Watchkeeping Certificate, i.e. to post to any ship as a Conning Officer equivalent; I needed to be able to fix every 6 minutes on a chart/ECDIS, monitor collision avoidance, conduct a MOBEX, conduct basic Engineering Breakdowns, and drive timings to get to an anchorage.

Meanwhile, my Navigators Qualification came from a week of doing High Speed Pilotage in non-buoyed/lit waters in a GPS denied environment, with Engineering breakdowns, MOBEX, and driving timings for anchorages.

A basic part of our Work Ups is doing 72 hours without Space, relying on traditional navigation methods, Astronavigation, even loss of RADARs too.

Why we do this? Because we lack the technology in our budget, so we have to train our people to an unbelievably high standard. Maybe so should the USN. I can't recall an incident since WWII where an RNZN vessel has collided on operation, and we consider Tokyo Bay and Malacca Strait to be a non-Command serial under the direction of the OOW.

ScribbleKid3 karma

That's a totally interesting point, re: lack of budget for technology. Some COs talked about the commonly observed phenomenon of the 'ARPA huddle' with junior officers all crowded around the ARPA display instead of looking outside and doing basic navigation.

ScribbleKid3 karma

Great question. The Navy has not formally spelled out any fault by the cargo ships. However, Japanese coast guard and the Singapore naval authorities have both cited the cargo ships for not taking their own steps to avoid the two Navy destroyers.

SeaState03 karma

Hi there Mr. Miller

During your investigation, what kind of short term/long term impact did you sense the incident had on the crew? Would you say most have recovered from the incident?

ScribbleKid3 karma

I can't really answer that question. You may be aware the XO, CDR Sean Babbitt, has raised the issue that many of the sailors suffered from PTSD and other physical and psychological problems. It's something that we'd love to know more about, so if there are FITZ or MCCAIN sailors who wish to speak to the issue, I've got open DMs. https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2018/03/15/former-fitzgerald-xo-navy-crew-members-battling-ptsd-after-fatal-collision/

Victorious103 karma

Do you feel the Navy pushes the blame and covers up events? What are your views on their investigative habits?

ScribbleKid6 karma

Actually, in my experience, the Navy tends to be more diligent in investigations than Army or even USMC. The Navy released three of their own reports into the collisions. By comparison, when 9 soldiers were killed in an overturned jeep accident in Ft. Hood in 2016, the Army did a single investigation and not much more: https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2017/09/10/nco-blamed-for-accident-that-killed-nine-soldiers-at-fort-hood/

Victorious103 karma

Any thoughts on investigating the other issues plaguing the navy? Seal teams or sexual assault to name a couple?

ScribbleKid3 karma

We are always open to additional investigation, of course. Our focus now is on the Navy's surface fleet.

Digibud-11 karma

Can you explain the thought process that lead to sensationalizing these stories instead of just reporting the facts? After 3 years on a destroyer in the 7th fleet, (left just prior to these collisions) I find the theater of these pieces cringeworthy. I am aware that there is a story to be told there, but wouldn't it be more effective to write the story in one piece and investigate in another? Much gets lost here.

ScribbleKid12 karma

Personally, I don't think the stories are sensationalized. Our goal here was to tell the events as a detailed narrative. In my experience, that's how people connect to a topic. And there is, to my mind, a worrisome gap between the all volunteer military and its burdens, and the general public. We wanted to tell a story that meant something to both the lay audience, and the expert audience.