Reporter Details Neglect And Disaster In The U.S. Navy

Apr 22, 2019
Originally published on April 25, 2019 1:41 pm

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. In the early morning darkness of June 17, 2017, the Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with a cargo ship in the South China Sea. The much larger cargo vessel ripped a huge hole in the Fitzgerald, killing seven sailors. Two months later, another destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, collided with another cargo ship leaving 10 more sailors dead.

Our guest, veteran journalist T. Christian Miller, is part of an investigative team at the online news site ProPublica that looked into the crashes and problems with Navy operations that may have contributed to them. The reporters found that ships in the Seventh Fleet were chronically understaffed and that crews were often exhausted, poorly trained, and working with outdated or poorly maintained equipment and software. They also found Navy commanders had flagged the problems for years, but little was done to address them.

T. Christian Miller is a senior reporter for ProPublica. He's covered four wars, a presidential campaign and reported for more than two dozen countries. In 2016, he shared a Pulitzer Prize for an investigation into the failures of law enforcement to properly investigate reports of rape. You can find his stories about the Navy collisions, reported with colleagues Robert Federici and Megan Rose, on the ProPublica website.

Well, T. Christian Miller, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with this horrific collision, June 2017, between the American destroyer the USS Fitzgerald and this cargo vessel, the ACX Crystal. Tell us a little bit about these two vessels and the risks of a collision, should they cross paths.

T CHRISTIAN MILLER: Well, these are not two vessels that you would typically imagine ever crossing paths, much less colliding into each other. The ACX Crystal was a thousand-ton cargo ship. It was transiting into Tokyo Harbor to deliver some goods. The USS Fitzgerald was a American destroyer of the Arleigh Burke war class. It is the main destroyer which now sails the seas all over the world for the Navy. And what's unique about Arleigh Burke-class destroyers - and this includes the USS Fitzgerald - is they are designed specifically to detect any kind of incoming threat, be it a missile, another warship, an airplane from hundreds of miles away.

So the idea that a 30,000-ton, slow-moving cargo vessel could ever collide with a $1.8 billion destroyer specifically designed to avoid threats like that was an incredible thing to think of ever happening. And so when it did happen, it really shook the Navy.

DAVIES: And give us - where and when did this happen? What sort of waters were they sailing?

MILLER: Sure. So on June 17, 2017, the USS Fitzgerald was sailing off the coast of Japan. It was about 12 miles off the coast. Pretty calm night. There was a little bit of a moon so you could see across the ocean. There was no storms or anything else. And it was sailing on its way to a mission in the South China Seas. It was about 1:20 a.m. in the morning - so very early in the morning - when the ACX Crystal hit the side of the USS Fitzgerald in a collision that tore a gigantic hole in the side of the Fitzgerald.

DAVIES: So it hit the starboard side. What parts of the ship were impacted, and what specifically happened there?

MILLER: So let me try and put you on the bridge of the ship, which is where the ship is steered from and navigated from. So it's 1:20 a.m. You have about 10 or 15 people who are responsible at this hour of the night for navigating the ship through these waters off the coast of Japan. They believe they're in, basically - there's not much traffic around them. This is kind of the mindset of the people who are on the ship right now.

And suddenly, with less than a minute to go, by some estimates, they finally see this 30,000-ton freighter coming toward them. They began emergency avoidance maneuvers. It's very late in the game, obviously. What's called the officer of the deck, who is the person who's in charge of the ship at that moment, was a young lieutenant by the name of Sarah Coppock.

By all accounts, Lieutenant j.g. Coppock kind of basically panicked a little bit, and she turned the Fitzgerald right in front of the cargo ship, in an effort to dodge out of the way. It was a miscalculation. It went against all the rules of seamanship. And what she essentially did in that moment is she exposed the Fitzgerald to being hit directly by the Crystal. When that happened, the Crystal has - and let me kind of try and draw the picture for your listeners. The Crystal's a large ship; it's much higher than the Fitzgerald, much taller than Fitzgerald. And beneath the surface, it has a protruding bough. You might have seen them before; it's almost like a giant bulbous bough, which houses some of the navigation equipment.

What happens then is that the Crystal basically catches the Fitzgerald in a pincer, between its leading prow at the top and the protruding part of it in the bottom, and it punches a hole simultaneously in its sleeping quarters, where there's about 40 sailors asleep, and at the same time, it punches a hole in another sleeping quarter - and this one is occupied by one person, the captain of the Fitzgerald, Bryce Benson.

DAVIES: So this was a massive collision. I mean, the Crystal was just this huge ship with all this momentum. What happened to the sailors who were sleeping in that berth that was directly hit?

MILLER: Right. I mean, the physics of this collision are incredible to think of. Essentially, what happened is, once that collision occurs, there is a hole punched in the side of the Fitzgerald in two different places. Water begins flooding into this sleeping apartment, which is underneath the waterline. There's about 35 to 40 sailors who are asleep in the compartment at that time. They are suddenly - basically, they begin to hear shouts; people can hear shouts like, there's water on deck. Get out, get out.

So people begin to sort of stand up, and they find themselves quickly submerged in water up to their waist within seconds. And they begin having to try and evacuate in this space, and let me kind of describe this space a little bit. It's in the middle of night, of course, so there's no lights on at all in the sleeping berthing area. There's no kind of a collision with sound, and no collision alarm was sounded. So these guys were basically asleep, and the next thing they know, they're woken up by cold water flooding in, a lot of the equipment inside has been tossed aside and tumbled onto the floor. There's lockers. There's an exercise bicycle. There's - there are various chairs and just equipment - they're all floating up in this water.

The water itself is kind of laced with kind of an oily foam, which is part of the - what happens when it breaks through the hole of the Fitzgerald, the Crystal does. And so these guys were immediately, within seconds, basically fighting for their lives. And the amazing thing is that of the - 27 sailors are able to escape from this dark and pitch-black, windowless sleeping area within about 60 seconds to 90 seconds. However, not everybody does. Seven of the sailors are trapped in the room. It's not clear whether or not they ever woke up or were conscious. But all seven sailors, an autopsy later determined, died of drowning. So those seven sailors did not make it out, and that was - at the time, that was the largest seaborne accident number of fatalities that had occurred since the 1970s.

DAVIES: Wow. And one of the remarkable details I read in your story was that sailors were able to maneuver out, despite the darkness, despite the rising water and all of the debris, because they trained to do this with blindfolds because this can happen.

MILLER: Right. That's one of the things that's supposed to happen immediately when you check into a Navy ship, is you get training on how to escape your sleeping quarters while blindfolded. I mean, the Navy is well aware that you have to be able to get out your sleeping quarters in case of a flood or an attack or anything else. So it's one of the primary things they train on. One of the sailors described to it as - it even becomes something of a ritual, breaking in new sailors, because they have to have tie-on blindfold and kind of walk around, almost like Frankenstein, a monster - was how it was described to me, in terms of them being able to feel their way out of their birthing unit and up a ladder and then escaping to a safe place.

DAVIES: So there was this chaos in the births underneath, where the sailors were sleeping. The captain, his sleeping quarters were hid, and he was not on the bridge at the time; we'll talk about that some more. What happened to the ship itself?

MILLER: So that's where the physics of the crash are so incredible. What happens to the ship itself is, once the 30,000 ton and the 8,000-ton Fitzgerald collide, is that the force of the collision is so great that it actually pushes the Fitzgerald on a 360-degree rotation through the middle of the Pacific Ocean in the middle of the night. And that image was one of the striking images that kind of stained me in their reporting of the story. It's just this out of control ship which has lost all its power, lost its steering, lost its lights. There are seven crewmen who are - who were passed away in the sleeping quarters. There are people who are trying to get out of their own sleeping quarters all over.

And in the middle of this chaos, they're also doing this uncontrolled spin in the middle of the night through the Pacific Ocean. And that 360-degree spin doesn't end for five minutes; they're kind of spinning through the ocean. At the same time, the Crystal also bounces off, basically, from this collision. They - the two ships are locked side by side for a few seconds, and they split off in different direction. The Crystal then ends up heading directly for another gigantic cargo ship, and it has to maneuver out of the way as well. So there's all this kind of happening, and the dark of the ocean was a startling image for me to consider.

DAVIES: Yeah, and you describe these somewhat panicked sailors on the bridge who were trying to guide the ship; it's dark, and they're trying to see things with lights from cellphones.

MILLER: Right. As the power goes out on the entire Fitzgerald because of the force of the blow knocks out some of the generators, and so you have sailors all over the ship who are using cellphone lights from their cellphone images. There's some emergency lights that are kicking on, but it's been described to me that those lights were, you know, not enough to illuminate the entire ship.

So you have people running through the darkness. Nobody really knows what's happened - keep in mind that, too. I mean, these sailors were all asleep, and nobody really thinks that they're going to be hit by a gigantic cargo ship. So there's questions flying about - were they attacked, were they hit by a missile, did they go aground? Like, it's all complete chaos, and nobody is - there's no easy way to figure out what's happening in these immediate minutes of the aftershock because everything has been shut down.

DAVIES: Was the Fitzgerald in danger of sinking?

MILLER: So what happens to Fitzgerald is it begins to take on water, both in the sleeping compartments, and there's other compartments nearby that are connected, and they all begin to take on water. And there's sort of these - we got ahold of the deck logs, which would talk about, we now have 80 tons of water in this ship, and we have 500 tons of water we've taken on in this area. And it's almost like this building kind of count of how the ship is becoming more and more hampered by the amount of water that's flooding in and trying to figure out how to balance the ship, and it's listing to one side.

And what finally happens is they manage to stabilize the ship enough, the crew does, to lock off all the flooding boundaries to get a little bit of power in one of their main shafts so they can kind of move forward a little bit, and they begin bailing out the ship by hand because the pumps are beginning to fail, and the pumps aren't working. And so for 10 hours, they are bailing out one of the compartments by hand, all in an effort to keep this ship righted and directed home under its - mostly under its own power. And that's a 14-hour rescue mission where these sailors basically recover from this incredible, traumatic blow and are managed to pull together and get their ship back into harbor.

DAVIES: T. Christian Miller is a senior reporter for ProPublica. You can read the reports that he and his crew of investigative reporters prepared on the problems with Navy operations and the collision of the USS Fitzgerald on the ProPublica website. We'll talk some more after a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON PARKS' "SMALL PLANET")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with T. Christian Miller; he's a senior reporter for ProPublica. He and a team of reporters investigated some troubling issues plaguing U.S. Navy operations that contributed to two deadly collisions with commercial vessels in 2017 - one of them the USS Fitzgerald. You can find their reporting on the ProPublica website.

This was a horrific disaster, but for a lot of people in the Navy, you tell us, it was not unexpected; that for years, up and down the command ranks, there were warnings about problems in the Navy operations. So let's look at the big picture - a lot of it, of course, was about resources, money. What was the pattern in the - I don't know - 10 or 20 years leading up to this that left the Navy under-resourced?

MILLER: So the Navy had made a lot of decisions in the 2000 time period to get more efficient, to try and find out ways to basically steer ships and man ships with fewer people on board by relying upon technology. A number of Navy thinkers, admirals, considered this possibility and were alarmed that what the Navy was doing was not becoming more efficient but was actually harming itself in terms of its ability to be effective in its mission.

And so when myself and my colleagues, Robert Faturechi and Megan Rose, went to look at this longer-term picture, the bigger picture of what had happened, it became clear there was a pattern where a Navy - internal Navy person - be it a three-star admiral or a high-ranking civilian, an assistant secretary of the Navy - would come forward and say, we don't think that you're putting enough resources into enough personnel, the training of those people, and then making sure those people have good equipment to work with, and instead, your focus is mostly on building ships and hoping that the crew will come later to staff up these ships. And that happened in - we found reports dating back to 2010 and earlier.

The GAO, externally, was also warning about those problems in manning, training equipment. A lot of the concern focused on what's called the 7th Fleet, and the 7th Fleet is the biggest fleet in the American Navy. It's actually the most powerful armada in the entire world. It's responsible for protecting the Pacific region and patrolling that area.

And so it's considered to be, like, one of the most strategic, one of the most important, really one of the most, kind of, hot-shot areas to work in because you're constantly, actually, deploying on missions to, let's say, go off the coast of North Korea and protect from missiles or go down in the South China Seas and confront Chinese naval vessels which are asserting their own territory there. So it's a very - it's like a "Top Gun" sort of operating environment, but for the Navy.

And so for these collisions to happen in the 7th Fleet was one of the shocking things - that was a sign that this wasn't just an accident. This wasn't just a one-time occurrence - that there might have been a pattern of neglect that had developed here over the years. And that's really what we try to show in our second story.

DAVIES: Let's look at some of these issues one at a time. The issue of a shortage of personnel - ships were being sent out with fewer people than they had before. Why was there a shortage?

MILLER: Why was there a shortage? The simple answer to that is the Navy had not paid enough attention to putting people into warships in Japan. The focus was on maintaining warships here, based in the United States, rather than making sure that the ships that were actually out doing patrols on a daily basis were filled. And so the mantra over in the 7th Fleet was really, we can do more with less. Like, we can get the job done, and whatever it takes, we will get that job done.

When the Navy looked at that afterwards, that's certainly a good trend in general - to believe that you can overcome adversity and get things done - but it can become dangerous if it becomes the norm. The accepted pattern is we are never going to have enough sailors. Our ships are never going to be fully certified for missions, but we're going to go out and do it anyway.

And that, essentially, was what we found had happened in the 7th Fleet area. There had been a long time of pushing these ships out without enough crew and that becoming almost a point of pride - the ability of our Navy to do that.

DAVIES: Yeah. You cited one report that showed that destroyer crews used to be 317 sailors. They were down to 254. That's a big loss. Now, there are different ways to deal with the shortage of people. People can work longer shifts or you can leave jobs simply unfilled. Did both things happen?

MILLER: Yes. There was - and both things happen in this case. Sailors talked to us about working 100-hour work weeks, for instance, on a routine basis just because that was the pace they needed to operate at in order to accomplish the jobs they had. And they talked about being exhausted and tired and uncertain of what it was that they were operating sometimes because they hadn't enough time for training.

You could also cut back on the number of missions that had occurred. That was the one thing that was not occurring is they were - the same number of missions were being conducted by the Navy with fewer people on their ships.

They also made a practice of simply operating without some personnel. For instance, with the Fitzgerald, they hadn't had the position of a senior quartermaster. And a quartermaster in the Navy is responsible for navigation on a particular shift. And so in this particular case, the Fitzgerald had had an unfilled navigator position, a quartermaster position, for more than two years. And that was not unusual is what our reporting found. It did happen in the 7th Fleet. It did happen on other ships.

But our reporting since has uncovered this is kind of a Navy-wide problem - that they're - having to kind of fully man their ships with the right people at the right time is still a difficulty for them.

DAVIES: And the quartermaster does a lot of training, right?

MILLER: Yes. This particular quartermaster position was responsible for doing a lot of the training of junior enlisted sailors. And so they were missing both of - sort of the function of their job, which is helping to move the ship around - but also, they were missing the function of their job which is to train younger, enlisted sailors on navigation.

DAVIES: Now, you write about how the navigations and control and radar systems were increasingly, you know, sophisticated and digitized. And you really have to know what you're doing to operate them. And if you're short of people and shifts are long, training suffers. How did that impact things?

MILLER: Well, so you saw, for instance, the No. 2 officer on the deck of the Fitzgerald that night later told investigators that she really wasn't sure how to operate the radar on the Fitzgerald that night. You had lots of questions about whether or not the radars had been properly fixed and whether or not the people who were using those radars had been trained in a way to operate them correctly.

For instance, some of the sailors that were the focus of the investigation were located in what's called the Combat Information Center - which is a windowless room in the center of the Fitzgerald from which a lot of the arms, ammunitions are fired. It's kind of at the heart-of-the-warship part of the warship.

And the people who were operating in the Combat Information Center testified and told us that they had never seen the approach of the cargo ship until a few, very few minutes before the collision actually happened. So this is the warship which is supposed to be designed to be looking out everywhere and finding enemy targets and defending the ship itself, and they don't even see this ship on their radar screens till about 90 seconds, perhaps, before that collision happens.

So the sailors we talked to talked about their radar not working. One of the navigational tools was being operated with a 17-year-old package of software - Windows 2000. The different equipment on the ship couldn't really talk to each other. So they were lacking, essentially, a picture of the environment around them, even though that's exactly what the equipment is supposed to do - is create a picture of the environment around them to avoid things like hitting a giant cargo ship.

DAVIES: T. Christian Miller is a senior reporter for ProPublica. After a break, he'll talk more about the events aboard the USS Fitzgerald, how the Navy responded to the collisions and what the ProPublica team is hearing from other sailors about conditions aboard their ships. Also, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a New Orleans-inspired album from drummer Herlin Riley. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALIFORNIA WIND ORCHESTRA'S "THE NAVY HYMN")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with ProPublica senior reporter T. Christian Miller, part of a team that investigated problems in the Navy that led to two disastrous collisions between American destroyers and commercial cargo ships. The ProPublica team found that for years, crews on Navy vessels were often understaffed, poorly trained and working with obsolete or poorly maintained equipment. When we left off, Miller was describing problems aboard the USS Fitzgerald that led to its collision with a cargo vessel that killed seven American sailors.

I have to say, this is a really compelling description because you have, in some cases, a place where a critical button was taped over that I think had to do with tuning radar to focus in on a particular target. And there was another system where a sailor had to tap, I guess, the refresh button a thousand times an hour to try and keep the picture in place.

MILLER: Yeah. When we sort of dug into some of the details of how the equipment was operating or not operating on the Fitzgerald, it was a continual source of amazement that the equipment was in the state it was in. So they had had a piece of tape covering a button to help tune the radar because they hadn't been able to find the actual button to replace it. A sailor who was operating one of these radar was having to essentially operate it in manual mode, which requires you to continually refresh the screen to be able to understand the ships that are around you.

So records show that this guy had actually hit the - this refresh button a thousand times in an effort to kind of get a picture of the environment around him. And - but even him doing that - which is uncontested - he said that he had never seen more than four or five ships close enough to pose a threat to the Fitzgerald during the entire evening.

And like everyone else, he just didn't know what was happening when there finally was a collision. It was - the last seconds that anybody was aware that there was a ship approaching them.

DAVIES: And do I have this right that one of these radar systems didn't show any vessels nearby because they didn't realize they had had it set to capture stuff at a much larger distance, and so they really didn't know what they were looking at?

MILLER: Right. So the Navy has pointed out that the training of these guys should have allowed them to understand what settings are supposed to be in effect when they're patrolling the night seas, right? And when the Navy looked at where the settings were for this particular radar system, they found that it was designed to look much further away than to look much closer in.

Now, all that being said, if the radar was operating properly, it's difficult to imagine how exactly you would have seen - missed, excuse me - a big cargo ship coming towards you. Whether or not it's the long setting or the near setting, that doesn't really matter so much in picking up a vessel that's that close and that large.

DAVIES: Right. It appears that there were problems both with the equipment that was used, you know, to track and monitor, navigate the ship, as well as some of the people who were operating it. There's also, then, the question of who was actually in charge of the vessel. And you write that the captain of the vessel - Bryce Benson - seems to be a really good officer. He was not on the bridge that night. Just tell us why he wasn't there and, you know, what his instructions were, what kind of crew was there to command the ship.

MILLER: So Captain Benson had taken over the Fitzgerald about a month before. During that month, he'd tried to get his crew up to speed, to do some training. But there was constantly missions that he was having to go out and do. So he didn't have a lot of time.

So on June 17, the Fitzgerald launches from Tokyo. It's on its way to the South China Seas. Captain Benson has been working kind of nonstop getting this ship ready to go. He wants to get ahead of schedule. And he knows he's going to have an early morning.

So he decides that around 11:30 - the ship is moving out past the heaviest traffic that's outside of Tokyo - and he decides that his crew is able to take over the ship. The ship's traveling in a relatively less dense area of traffic. And he says - decides that he is going to go and retire to his cabin because he needs the rest. Basically, he kind of self-assesses that he's near exhaustion and he needs to rest to be prepared for the missions ahead of him.

DAVIES: And did he have a crew he was confident in on the bridge then?

MILLER: And so he had placed on the bridge a crew which was the result of having to juggle a lot of different decisions. He had placed - tried to compensate some weaker crew members with stronger crew members. And so you had a mixed bag onboard the ship that night steering at the time of the collision. You had the officer of the deck, who was Lieutenant J.G. Sarah Coppock. Her No. 2 had said that she wasn't that experienced in actually using the radar on deck.

There was another junior officer who was charged with kind of helping to steer the ship. He had - was basically as new as an officer could be. It was his very first night on the job by himself without help. You had another sailor on - in the bridge. It was actually the one whose person - her hands were on the wheel, the steering wheel - who had never touched the steering wheel before.

And so Captain Benson's strategy here was to balance out stronger sailors with weaker sailors. And under the conditions, he believes that he did the very best he could to balance that crew out - to accommodate the hand he was dealt, which was a ship that didn't have enough crew in the first place. The training was behind. And there were problems with the radar on the vessel. So given that - those circumstances, his belief is that he was doing the very best he could to balance out that ship.

DAVIES: You have a situation where, for a combination of reasons - I mean, the people that were supposed to be aware of ships nearby are not. And so they don't see this vessel until very late. One thing that would help, of course, would be having people watching the sea. The shortage of personnel had an impact here, right?

MILLER: Yeah, absolutely. The other thing that - especially for your listeners who are old-time Navy hands who are listeners to this show - is that the Fitzgerald did not post lookouts on the port side and on the starboard side of the ship. And those port lookouts - going back for generations - are remembered by basically anybody who served in the Navy. You always had somebody who was looking off at the right, somebody who was looking off at the left and somebody who was looking off in the rear of the ship. And that was their one job.

Because of personnel shortfalls and because of the juggling he was having to do, Captain Benson - and other captains also certainly did this - decided to forego having two dedicated lookouts on either side of the ship and instead kind of distribute that responsibility to the entire - everyone who was on the bridge to kind of be maintaining awareness of what's around you, which - that is a highly reasonable assumption to make. But it is different than having one person whose one job it is to look off to the right, look off to the left, look behind the ship.

Those two positions were traditionally filled. And they have basically fallen away in the modern Navy because of the increased demands on ships, because of the fewer personnel available, but also because of the technology. I mean, the belief is that the technology is there to protect these ships. You know, it's not as necessary as it was when you had poor radars and poor systems to have somebody just perched, looking out across the ocean.

DAVIES: So you had this circumstance where Lieutenant Junior Grade Sarah Coppock is on the bridge, and suddenly she realizes that the Crystal is much, much closer than she expected. There's another ship that she thinks may pass behind the Fitzgerald. And she's got to make some quick decisions. What happens?

MILLER: So under the international rules that cover sea traffic, she's supposed to turn right. She's supposed to go starboard. And she initially orders the Fitzgerald to go starboard to avoid the impending collision. The young man who is transmitting her orders gets confused about some of those orders and kind of freezes up. The young woman who is - actually has her hands on the control is also not certain what it is she's supposed to do.

So Sarah Coppock, realizing that her orders aren't being carried out, makes a quick change to dodge left and go in front of and avoid the oncoming Crystal. That was a calculation which goes against international maritime rules. It goes against Navy training, but it's what she felt that she could do to avoid this collision. It was - didn't pay off. She ended up steering right into the front of the Crystal, and the Crystal ends up hitting the front right part of the ship.

And in kind of a dramatic turn, Sarah Coppock - to try to figure out whether or not she has the space to turn, she actually runs out onto a small deck which extends out in front of the bridge just in time to look up and see this looming, dark superstructure of the Crystal about to crunch into her ship. And she actually has to hold onto a metal instrument that's out there to prevent from being - get tossed overboard by the impact of the collision itself.

DAVIES: Two months after this collision, there was another one. The USS John McCain collided with an oil tanker. What do we know about what led to that?

MILLER: So this was what makes it apparent that this wasn't just a one-time incident that occurred on the Fitzgerald, that this is actually more of a systematic problem and it's not just about the crew - although they made mistakes. It's also about the Navy and the - and higher-up decisions by the Navy in training and equipping these ships because one $1.8 billion destroyer being hit by a cargo ship is a black swan event - incredibly rare, hasn't happened in 40 years. For a second one to occur two months later, this time in the straits of Singapore - very similar situation.

They're approaching a heavy traffic area. This time, the captain is actually on the bridge. As they approach, another 30,000-ton oil tanker - in this case it's called the Alnic - they lose control of the steering, or they think they lose control of the steering. And there's confusion in the bridge room. And by the time they figure it out, they have actually pivoted themselves directly in front of the oil tanker, the Alnic, which, again, hits the - hits McCain, punches another hole again in a sleeping area. This happens - accident happens early in the morning hours. And in this case, a lower sleeping berthing fills. And this time, 10 sailors are drowned within seconds.

DAVIES: T. Christian Miller is a senior reporter for ProPublica. You can read reports of the investigation he and two other reporters conducted into Navy operations and the collision of the USS Fitzgerald on the ProPublica website. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with T. Christian Miller. He's a senior reporter for ProPublica. He and a team of reporters investigated some troubling issues plaguing U.S. Navy operations that contributed to two deadly collisions with commercial vessels in the summer of 2017. You can find their reporting with some remarkable graphics on the ProPublica website.

So after these two collisions, this was a big, big deal. How did the Navy Command respond?

MILLER: So the Navy after the second collision knew that this was much bigger than any one-ship collision had been. And to their credit, the Navy opened a number of internal and external investigations into what happened. All through the fall of 2017, which is happening after the McCain collide in August of 2017, they release a series of reports. And they kind of look - what happened on the ship? What happened in the 7th Fleet as a whole? And then strategically, on the highest level, what had the Navy done or not done?

And the Navy found that there were definitely errors and mistakes made by the crew. But they also sort of highlighted a number of problems that had existed in the big Navy for a number of years, and they had to do with decisions that were made to kind of cut back on the sort of face-to-face training that had occurred or cut back on the radars they were placing on these ships. Part of this was due to Congress and cutting Navy and military budgets in general.

But part of this was decisions made by the Navy to accommodate and adjust to a smaller fleet even though they were being warned over and over again that they needed to reduce. Ultimately, they couldn't keep everything the same. You can't run the same number of missions without more ships and without more people. And that's essentially what the Navy has been trying to do - is trying to kind of keep up constant pace of missions to operate in a very dangerous world that we live in while at the same time not addressing the fact that they don't have as many people or as many ships to do it.

So the Navy investigates itself, and then it decides to do a series of accountability actions, let's call them. They fire a number of individuals - three-star admirals, two-star admirals. And they punish some crew members on the ship itself.

DAVIES: You know, when I read these pieces that you and your two co-authors wrote, I mean, you get the sense that these were problems that were endemic to the Navy for many, many years and pointed out by commanders and studies and reports. And so then in some respects, a disaster was surprising, but I'm interested in how you got that story because, you know, military culture is typically pretty closed. I mean, people respect chains of command. They follow orders. How did you get people to talk? How did they start talking to you?

MILLER: So when the story began, me and Robert Faturechi and Megan Rose all began to fan out to just talk to sources, names we had. And we all had a similar experience, which is that when we would talk to officers, to admirals, to enlisted sailors, there was a strong belief that the Navy had not learned the lessons from these two crashes. And we were all struck by - all of us are - Robert has reported on law enforcement for many years. Megan's reported on the military. Her family is filled with military. I've reported on the military for many years as well.

All of us were struck by how aggrieved and upset people were about the way Big Navy had handled the lessons to be learned from this case. So it's rare, in my experience at least, that you get active duty and non-active duty admirals willing to lend their names to a story that was critical of the Navy.

In this case, people were wanting to come forward. Whistleblowers wanted to come forward because they felt the Navy had missed signs in the past that would have prevented these collisions from ever occurring.

DAVIES: And I'm guessing you and your team have open lines of communications to sailors and commanders. What are you hearing from them about what's changing?

MILLER: So we did a piece that kind of looked at some of the feedback we got after the articles ran, and a number of sailors have said it's the same thing. There are still sailors that are running 100-hour work weeks in Japan. Ships might be sailing, for instance, with a full complement of sailors, but those sailors might not be trained in all the jobs they're supposed to do.

So it'll look like you have, you know, a full ship - fully crewed ship, but some people on that ship won't be able to do the jobs that they're supposed to be doing. We've heard that there are ships that are still kind of leaving without proper parts - all the parts they need - and they cannibalize them, taking part from one ship and adding parts to another ship.

So we haven't heard a full, you know, endorsement that everything is getting better. On the other hand, certainly there are sailors who've contacted us to say they have seen some changes, most notably in the training phases, where you definitely have more time you spend now as an officer in getting certified to be a surface war officer, which is the guys who steer our ships and fight wars with our ships. That designation is being - takes more training to get that designation, to keep that designation.

So you are seeing some people who are coming forward and saying, yeah, they've seen changes from this training. The biggest overall question is, what is the impact going to be? Have we gone far enough? Have we done enough? Are the steps taken going to make for a better Navy?

DAVIES: Well, T. Christian Miller, thanks for your reporting. And thanks for speaking with us.

MILLER: Thanks so much for having me on, Dave. I really do appreciate it.

DAVIES: T. Christian Miller is a senior reporter for ProPublica. He reported on problems with Navy operations in two deadly collisions between Navy destroyers and commercial vessels. Besides the demotions and discipline imposed after the collisions, criminal charges were brought against six officers and enlisted crew members - charges that were recently dropped.

Miller reported on problems with the prosecution earlier this month. You can find that and his stories about the Navy collisions, reported with colleagues Robert Faturechi and Megan Rose, on the ProPublica website.

Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album from drummer Herlin Riley. This is FRESH AIR.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we incorrectly say the USS Fitzgerald collided with a cargo ship in the South China Sea. The USS Fitzgerald was en route to the South China Sea, but the collision took place off the coast of Japan.]

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HADEN'S "HE'S GONE AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.