Report: ACX Crystal was Likely On Autopilot

Video frame courtesy NHK

Published Jun 26, 2017 11:39 AM by The Maritime Executive

On Friday, unnamed Navy officials released several new developments in the USS Fitzgerald investigation. The conservative outlet the Washington Free Beacon reports that investigators believe the container ship ACX Crystal was on autopilot at the time of collision, and that it appears that no one was at the helm. The news could not be immediately confirmed; the Beacon has a controversial history, but it has broken major stories in the past.

The officials appeared to confirm outside analyses of the Crystal's AIS track. AIS records show that she experienced a sudden deviation and loss of speed – indicative of collision – followed by an immediate return to her prior course and speed. Multiple experts suggest that the swift resumption of her planned voyage indicates autopilot control without human oversight. 

Charterer NYK said earlier this week that the Crystal did not report the collision for nearly one hour after it occurred. Multiple outlets reported Friday that the accident took out almost all of the Fitzgerald’s communications gear, contributing to a delay in reporting the incident to SAR authorities. 

Separately, CNN reports that five of the seven sailors who perished in the collision were incapacitated and killed almost immediately, based on the location of their berths and the extent of the physical damage to the ship. Navy sources told the channel that the two other men may have died while attempting to save others. It is unclear whether they perished before or after their shipmates made the decision to shut the compartment's watertight doors. Initial reports indicate that closing the doors helped save the ship from capsize; even after shutting damaged compartments, the crew had to set up dewatering equipment to hold back flooding. Even one week on, dewatering efforts on the Fitzgerald continue alongside the pier in Yokohama.

The Japan Coast Guard has retrieved the Crystal's VDR, and investigators will use this data in parallel with tracking information stored by the Fitzgerald's powerful Aegis weapons guidance system to develop a detailed analysis of the events leading up to the collision. The Aegis data may give insight into the positions of other vessels and whether their movements may have limited Fitzgerald's options. The accident occurred in a convergence zone on the approaches to Tokyo Bay – an extremely busy area, especially in the early hours of the day as vessels rush to get into port and begin cargo operations, according to Japan Coast Guard officials. 

"Missing" sailor faces court-martial

Gas turbine technician 3rd Class Peter Mims, who was reported missing and likely overboard from the cruiser USS Shiloh earlier this month, turned up in an engineering space on board – but only after a costly international SAR effort covering over 5,000 square miles of ocean. Pacific Fleet spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight told Navy Times that the investigation into the disappearance continues, but he said it appears that Mims actively took "steps to avoid being found." Mims is being held at Miramar, San Diego to await possible court-martial.