WASHINGTON, D.C. – The former captain of the destroyer USS John S. McCain was sentenced to forfeit $6,000 in pay and awarded a letter of reprimand at a special court-martial on Friday after he acknowledged responsibility for the Aug. 21, 2017 collision with an oil tanker near Singapore that killed 10 of his crew.
Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez pleaded guilty at the court-martial on Friday to dereliction of duty as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors, under which other charges of negligent homicide and hazarding a vessel were withdrawn. He has already received the letter of reprimand and has paid $4,498 as part of earlier nonjudicial punishment.
Sanchez has requested to retire and now Navy Secretary Richard Spencer will determine if he will be reduced in rank.
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The McCain’s former skipper was visibly and audibly emotional as he read a statement to military judge Navy Capt. Charles Purnell accepting responsibility for the collision and loss of life.
“Nothing in Navy training will prepare you for the death of your sailors,” Sanchez told the judge. “The death of a sailor, a mother and father’s pain of losing a child, was the only thing I dreaded in command. Thirteen years have passed and I still vividly remember notifying my mother of the death of my sister. My family and I are still healing from our loss.
“I still see the suffering in my parents’ eyes. I see the same suffering in the eyes of the family members here today or whom I have seen at memorial services – I feel that pain with them.”
The former commanding officer acknowledged that he should have set Sea and Anchor detail – highest state of watch stander preparedness for navigation and shiphandling – before entering the Singapore Strait so that the bridge crew would have been in a better position to react to increased traffic. He also explained the series of mistakes that led the bridge crew to mistakenly believe they had lost control of McCain’s rudder amid the channel.
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Sanchez told the Purnell that he should have taken command of the situation when the bridge crew thought it could not steer the ship. “There was some confusion that could have been resolved by … skipping all of the steps and saying, ‘Aft steering, take over steering control,” he said.
He also acknowledged that the helmsman driving the ship at the time had not been properly trained on how to use the ship’s steering system. “We put that on the 18-year-old,” Sanchez said. “I did not set the conditions for him to succeed. That’s my job.”
The prosecution argued that if Sanchez had set Sea and Anchor detail before entering the Singapore Strait, he would have had more seasoned watchstanders on the bridge. As it happens, because Sea and Anchor detail was supposed to begin an hour afterward, the crew that attended the prior day's navigation briefing was not on the bridge at the time of the collision.
Several relatives of the sailors killed aboard the McCain criticized Sanchez for not hitting the collision alarm, giving those sailors sleeping time to awaken and brace for impact.
Karen Doyon, mother of Electronics Technician 2nd Class Petty Officer Dustin L. Doyon, who was killed in the collision, said she is haunted by the thoughts of what her son went through after the tanker slammed into the McCain.
If her son and the other sleeping sailors had been given 60 seconds of warning, they would still be alive. She claimed that Sanchez had two minutes to sound the collision alarm but failed to do so.
“What the hell was he thinking?” she asked.
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Sanchez’ attorney Cmdr. Stuart Kirkby argued that the McCain did not see the other ship on radar. Moreover, the McCain put all of its running lights on red to alert other vessels that it was out of control, but the oil tanker did not give way.
The McCain was supposed to have 339 crew members, but due to manning problems in 7th Fleet it only had about 300 sailors aboard, Kirkby argued in court. The reason Sanchez did not set Sea and Anchor detail at 5 a.m. that morning – as several officers had recommended the day prior – is the captain wanted to give his overworked crew more rest.
“If the proper manning had been there with the proper personnel then we wouldn’t have the need for him to say, ‘I need more crew rest,’” Kirkby told reporters after Friday’s hearing. “If you have enough bodies to do the jobs, everybody is only working 13 hours a day, which is what the Navy says people at sea should work. I can guarantee you: The sailors aboard the USS McCain were working more than 13 hours a day.”
Navy leadership and Congress failed to make sure that the destroyer was properly manned and that its crew was fully trained and equipped, Kirkby argued. The investigation into the McCain collision also found vulnerabilities in the ship’s navigation system, he said.
“This is a case about the need for fundamental change in the Navy,” Kirkby said.
Sanchez’ wife, Maria Zapata Yordan, testified that after the collision, her husband would scream orders in his sleep. She said she knows her husband will never fully recover.
“It’s never going to end,” Yordan said. “It’s not going to end.”
Before issuing his sentence, Purnell said that the anger expressed by family members of the 10 sailors killed aboard the McCain had come through “loud and clear,” as well as Sanchez’ dedication to his ship and crew.
Addressing Sanchez, the judge said: “Don’t be the 11th casualty of the McCain. I am confident you have a whole lot to contribute.”