USS Fitzgerald officer of the deck pleads guilty

Lieutenant junior grade Sarah Coppock, who was the officer of the deck when USS Fitzgerald collided last June with ACX Crystal, has pleaded guilty to charges of dereliction of duty.

In a court-martial hearing at the Washington Navy Yard, Coppock was sentenced to a letter of reprimand and the forfeiture of half her pay for three months.

According to the charge sheet, Coppock

(a) failed to communicate with USS Fitzgerald’s Command Information Centre (CIC);

(b) failed to report contacts to the commanding officer;

(c) failed to operate safely in an area of heavy vessel traffic;

(d) failed to alert the destroyer’s crew of an impending collision.

The presiding judge also faulted her for losing situational awareness, for failing to sound whistle signals, or to contact the ACX Crystal.

“Not a day goes by where I haven’t thought about what I could have done differently. There is nothing I can do now but take responsibility,” she said.

Coppock also revealed that USS Fitzgerald’s primary navigation radar had developed problems an hour before the collision. The Navy’s post-accident investigation found that Fitzgerald supervisors “accepted difficulties in operating radar equipment due to material faults as routine rather than pursuing solutions to fix them”. It faulted Coppock’s watch team for not properly tuning and operating their radars.

Radar operation played a key role in the moments leading up to the accident. Some 20 minutes before the collision, USS Fitzgerald’s bridge team tried, but failed, to establish a radar track of ACX Crystal. Seven minutes later, Coppock plotted a radar track for ACX Crystal’s approach and calculated that the container ship would pass safely at 1,500 yards. She did not take evasive action until five minutes before the accident.

The prosecution confirmed that Coppock had cooperated with the investigation and had not attempted to avoid accountability. The judge commended her for her forthrightness.