ProPublica

How We Investigated the Navy’s Twin Disasters in the Pacific

We set out to reconstruct the accidents in which the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain collided with cargo vessels within a few months of each other in 2017, the deadliest accidents at sea in the Navy in four decades. We sent out a team of reporters to interview scores of current and former sailors, officers and commanders, as well as family members and friends. We conducted dozens of interviews with current and former Navy admirals and senior civilian leaders, including the former secretary of the Navy. We attended courts-martial and military hearings. We spoke with experts in ship construction, maritime law and military justice. Many sources were interviewed multiple times. Interviews were conducted in Japan, Virginia, Maryland, California and Washington, D.C.

We obtained two confidential reports on the collisions that included more than 13,000 pages of documents, photos and transcripts of sailor interviews. The material included ship logs, disciplinary records and raw data. Navy sources provided emails, internal memos and accounts of private meetings. We also relied on the Navy’s publicly released reports, here, here, here and here, which detailed shortfalls in training, equipment and manpower. We drew upon testimony given by Navy officials to Congress, as well as testimony and motions delivered during courts-martial.

We used reports from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Government Accountability Office and numerous other official sources. Several news outlets have extensively reported on the collisions, including Stars and Stripes and USNI News. The Navy Times published a multipart series containing portions of the confidential reports that we reviewed. To understand the Fitzgerald, we toured a ship of the same class, built our own 1:700 scale model and used computer simulations to recreate the Fitzgerald and spaces on board. The Navy did not grant interviews with current Navy leaders. It also did not answer the majority of questions contained in a 10-page list sent by ProPublica in October 2018.

To reconstruct scenes in the narrative, ProPublica combined written accounts, transcripts, interviews and ship logs. ProPublica attempted to contact those mentioned by name in this story. In cases where people turned down our requests for interviews, or where we received no response, we used transcripts of interviews, written statements and interviews from eyewitness sources. All statements in quotation marks are exact quotations taken from interviews or transcripts. In a very few cases, scenes rely upon interviews or testimony from a single source.

The following people contributed to our reporting: Robi Bean, Sophie Chou, Jeff Ernsthausen, Stefan Fichtel, Xaquín G.V., Joshua Hunt, Ian MacDougall, Claire Perlman, Gabriel Sandoval, Ann Schneider, Nate Schweber, Lucy Sexton, Ginger Thompson and Lucas Waldron

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