Fifty minutes before the destroyer Kinkaid collided with a merchant vessel off the Strait of Malacca last fall, the junior officer of the deck spotted the merchant vessel and alerted the officer in charge, according to testimony Tuesday during the court-martial of Cmdr. John Cochrane, skipper of the Kinkaid.
Fifteen minutes before the actual crash, the merchant vessel Kota Petani flashed its lights to warn the Kinkaid, which was on the wrong side of the busy channel. And, although the merchant vessel flashed its lights again before the collision, the officer in charge made no attempt to avoid the merchant ship or to contact the Kinkaid's captain.
Confused about the location of the Kinkaid, the officer of the deck--Lt. (j.g.) Steven Michael Williams--said he became so preoccupied with trying to figure out the ship's location and why it was on the wrong side of the strait that he ignored warnings that another vessel was closing on the Kinkaid.
Williams said he ordered four course changes--including one that required a 45% change in course--without telling the captain, as Navy regulations require him to do.
"I was under the impression that minor course changes didn't require reporting," said Williams, who clenched his hands during most of his testimony. Asked if Cochrane had ever suggested that he did not want to be contacted before changes in course or speed, Williams said: "No, it was an error on my part."
The testimony, which came during the third day of proceedings, spotlighted a number of deviations from Navy regulations that contributed to the Kinkaid's collision last November that killed the ship's navigator as he slept in his bunk and injured five sailors.
Cochrane is the first Navy captain to be court-martialed for a collision in more than 10 years. To prove Cochrane was derelict, Lt. Cmdr. Leroy Dickens, the prosecutor, must show that the skipper's actions or inactions led to the crash. Before the proceedings are complete, Dickens expects to call almost 30 witnesses, including many sailors from Cochrane's crew.
But Williams, in his testimony, reiterated that he had failed to contact the captain and that he was the captain's only link to what was happening aboard the ship as he slept.
Williams, 26, who was found to have Hodgkins disease two months after the crash, was given a punitive letter of reprimand during his February court-martial, during which he pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty.
"I believe I made several grievous errors on this night (of the accident)," Williams had said during a statement issued at his court martial. "When I saw the Kota Petani pulling away, (after colliding) I wondered out loud, 'How many men have I killed?' I believed that I was fully and solely responsible for the collision."
For Dickens to successfully prosecute Cochrane, he must show that Williams alone does not shoulder the responsibility for the crash.
Calling several other witnesses, Dickens attempted to paint the Kinkaid as a ship run by an ill-prepared and often understaffed crew, who lacked direction from the captain.
Stewart Van Vliet, quartermaster first class, testified that the destroyer did not have an assistant navigator. "There was no assistant navigator on board--I found out later it was me. I was told it was me," he said.
Intelligence specialist Matthew Nikola, who trained lookouts aboard the Kinkaid, said he had not instructed sailors since July--or four months before the crash--even though a number of new sailors came aboard the Kinkaid in the intervening months. Nikola said he had asked nine or 10 times about conducting more training but had always been put off.
Petty Officer Gary Tidwell said the sailors stationed as lookouts the night of the crash "weren't the best lookouts you could have. They weren't sure how to do their jobs."
And, according to Chief Petty Officer Allen Maxwell, the ship's duty officer, Williams, couldn't handle his job. After assuming watch at 3:40 a.m. as the junior officer of the deck--or Williams' assistant--Maxwell saw two ships. As required, since the ships passed within 10,000 yards, Williams directed Maxwell to phone the captain and inform him. He did. But, when two other ships passed--one about 700 yards away--Maxwell told Williams, yet Williams told him to ignore them.
Maxwell, who had control of the engines and rudder, spotted the Kota Petani 50 minutes before it collided with the Kinkaid, he said. He warned Williams, but the duty officer again dismissed his concerns, Maxwell said.
"It was clear that he (Williams) had a different idea what the problem was," Maxwell said. "I mentioned it to him. I knew there was a (ship) out there. I knew it was a problem. . . .But, up until seconds before the collision, I thought Williams had everything under control."