The ‘USS Fitzgerald’ And The ‘ACX Crystal’ – Maritime Mystery Or A Terrorist Attack?

The East China Sea can be a busy place, even at 2.30 in the morning. Nevertheless, a U.S. warship has technological eyes and ears that can operate miles into the distance. It was a clear, relatively quiet, night. The only ship nearby had been a Filipino-flagged container vessel out of Nagoya bound for Tokyo. It had passed on the warship’s starboard beam, maybe a mile or so away, some twenty-five minutes previous.

The guided-missile destroyer was on a routine patrol. Apart from the watch at their stations, most of the hands were asleep in their bunks. The USS Fitzgerald wasn’t on high alert. Her commander was in his cabin, a junior officer in temporary command. Apparently, no-one noticed the huge bulk of the heavily-laden container ship bearing down on them until it was too late to take evasive action. The huge vessel had a deadweight of almost 40,000 tons, the Fitzgerald a mere 8,900 tons. It was no contest.

The container ship, ACX Crystal, rammed the Fitzgerald on her starboard side just forward of the bridge structure. The vessel’s huge bulbous bow ripped into the hull of the warship below the waterline like a great battering ram. For seven of the sleeping sailors below decks death was instantaneous. Sea water engulfed their quarters. The commander’s cabin was crushed by the impact, it’s occupant severely injured, needing immediate airlift to a land-based hospital.

The ACX Crystal, having suffered only superficial structural damage, turned about, onto its original course and continued on to its destination, Tokyo. The USS Fitzgerald managed to stay afloat long enough to be towed back the fifty-six miles to its home port of Yokosuka in Japan.

The container ship had been on a easterly course when it first encountered the Fitzgerald. It steamed on for twenty-five minutes, then made a 180 degree turn and back-tracked westward, ramming the Fitzgerald some twenty-five minutes later.

Course of the ACX Crystal

The true position of the Fitzgerald at the time of the incident has not been made public. There’s no way of knowing her exact location at the time the container ship first passed by her, but the moment of impact is fairly obvious from the above image. It begs the question: what caused the captain of the ACX Crystal to turn about and retrace his steps until he rammed the warship?

Given that, immediately following the incident, the container ship resumed its original course, almost as though nothing had happened, it seems unlikely the ship had developed a fault requiring her to return to her port of departure. Had a crew member been lost overboard? Was the container ship returning in an attempt to locate him? There’s no mention of the ACX Crystal not having a full crew when it arrived in Tokyo.

It’s hard to envisage any scenario other than the ACX Crystal being deliberately used to sink the Fitzgerald. A terrorist attack using a 40,000 ton battering ram?

There are still many unanswered questions. Was the Fitzgerald in sight of the ACX Crystal fifty minutes before the incident? Why didn’t the Fitzgerald’s watch notice the huge vessel bearing down on them?

ACX Crystal

Even if the container ship was showing no lights, it’s inconceivable the Fitzgerald’s highly sophisticated radar equipment missed it. Why did the larger vessel not stop to render assistance to the badly damaged warship?

Washington is certainly alarmed at the upsurge of ISIS in the Philippines. This from CBS less than one month ago:

Video obtained by The Associated Press from the Philippine military indicates an alliance of local Muslim fighters, aligned with IS, are coordinating complex attacks. They include the Islamic State’s purported leader in Southeast Asia: Isnilon Hapilon, a Filipino on Washington’s list of most-wanted terrorists, with a $5 million bounty on his head.

U.S. officials are assessing whether any of the estimated 1,000 Southeast Asians who traveled to Iraq and Syria in recent years are fighting in Catholic-majority Philippines. They fear ungoverned areas in the mostly Muslim region around Marawi could make the area a terror hub as in the 1990s.

Then, the Philippines was a base of operations for al-Qaida leaders like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Yousef, who plotted in 1994-95 to blow up airliners over the Pacific. The plot was foiled. But the same men were instrumental in the 9/11 attacks on the United States. [1]

The ACX Crystal was being operated as a ‘bareboat charter’. That means the charter company supplies its own crew and master, and is responsible for all costs i.e. port fees, fuel, insurance, and all other expenses. ACX Crystal was chartered to Sinbanali Shipping Inc of Manila, Philippines, since 2014. There’s not much information on Sinbanali, but it’s known that the master and crew of the ACX Crystal were all Filipinos.

The US Navy is carrying out an investigation into the Fitzgerald incident, and so far is keeping its findings secret. Maybe, in time we’ll learn more. Maybe we won’t. For now the near loss of the USS Fitzgerald, and the resulting deaths of seven of its crew, remain a maritime mystery.

[1] “Islamic State threat in Southeast Asia raises alarm in Washington” CBS, May 26th 2017