Acquitted Skipper Laments Crash That Scuttled Career

NORA ZAMICHOW, TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cmdr. John Cochrane had always figured himself a lifelong Navy man. As skipper of the destroyer Kinkaid, he dreamed of commanding a carrier group or a battleship. But, on Thursday, one day after being acquitted of criminal negligence, he said he realizes those dreams were shattered in a twist of metal last November when his vessel collided with a Panamanian merchant ship.

"I suspect it will never happen," said Cochrane, 44, who would like to command a ship again. "It's difficult to convey to someone who hasn't striven to command, but being in command is one of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences. I would go back if I could. What I want to do is what I had been doing before Nov. 12."

Over the past two weeks, during eight days of court-martial proceedings, Cochrane heard his crew testify about the crash, which killed the Navy navigator and injured 17 sailors.

Much of the testimony made the ship's crew seem ill-prepared. And Cochrane himself took the stand to testify about an embarrassing "memory lapse" that prompted him to give an erroneous account of the accident to an investigating admiral.

On Thursday, in a 90-minute interview with The Times, Cochrane and his wife, Suzanne, said that, despite his acquittal, the accident has not only derailed Cochrane's career but also damaged the carefully wrought world they had created.

"I likened it to a death--it was a death to our way of life as we knew it. In one brief moment, John knew his career would never be the same," said Suzanne, 42.

Cochrane realized as soon as he woke to the alarm on a clear, dark November morning that disaster had struck his ship by the Strait of Malacca. And, in the days that followed, he fell into a deep depression--trying to understand how the accident had occurred.

"I gladly would have traded places with the navigator. . . . I would much rather it had been me than him," Cochrane said.

In late March, Cochrane requested permission to retire from the Navy but the request was denied as high-ranking Navy officials decided to press criminal charges against him in court-martial proceedings. Today, however, Cochrane says he wants to stay in the Navy--probably for two to three more years. And, he says, he certainly wants to receive his promotion to captain, which is slated for August.

Cochrane's court-martial does not affect that promotion, which will be awarded unless it is vetoed by the secretary of the Navy, said Cmdr. Craig Quigley, a Navy spokesman in Washington.

Cochrane is still uncertain about his plans and has not received his next assignment, though he requested a posting in San Diego.

"There's an old saying that the reward for a general is not a bigger tent but command. In the Navy, the job is your reward," said Cochrane, dressed in beige slacks and a light blue sports shirt, appearing more relaxed than he had been during the past two weeks.

"When you accept command, you recognize you are going to be held accountable. They didn't force me to be a commanding officer, I volunteered. I asked. I worked 20 years for it."

Even now, Cochrane cannot explain how the accident happened, except to point out the failures of two men upon whom he had relied: the navigator and the officer of the deck. The two were the cream of his crew, he said.

"That's a mystery," he said. "I'm sure that's the way all tragedies happen. A whole bunch of things went wrong at the same time. If the officer of the deck called me, I would have been on the bridge in a flash, and it never would have happened. People who had not made serious mistakes in the past did so--I am at loss to explain."

The navigator had miscalculated and told him the ship would arrive in one of the world's busiest straits about 10 a.m., so Cochrane had scheduled a navigation briefing for the morning. But, in fact, the Kinkaid arrived at 5 a.m.--while its captain and navigator slept, and half the appropriate number of sailors manned the Combat Information Command.

Confused, the officer of the deck tried to figure out the destroyer's location. He ordered more than four course changes--including one of 45 degrees and one that put the ship on the wrong side of the shipping lanes. But the officer neglected to call Cochrane--though he had orders to do so with any course changes or questions.

On the night of the crash, Cochrane was sleeping in the cabin only yards from the bridge, and he woke to the piercing alarm. Pulling on his trousers, he reached for a shirt and realized in a flash that he had no time to put it on. Instead, he dashed for the bridge. Halfway there, the ship lurched. The merchant vessel had punched a 56-by-15-foot hole in the Kinkaid's side.

Cochrane realized he was too late.

He scrambled to the bridge. He issued orders to douse the three fires that had broken out and to rescue the five men who had tumbled into the water. And he tried to find the injured.

"In that one instant when the ship lurched, I realized that things would never be the same again," Cochrane said.

Although he did not have to issue a statement to the investigating crew aboard his ship, he felt obligated to explain what had happened, he said. But he could remember nothing, he said.

In looking at the charts, he figured that the Kinkaid would reach the Strait of Malacca about 5 a.m. So he issued a statement saying he knew it would arrive early morning.

"You just don't say, 'I don't know' or 'I can't answer.' I felt complete responsibility," Cochrane said. "It was inconceivable to me that Sean (McPhee, the navigator) hadn't told me. It was so out of character. The error was by several hours. I just wanted to cooperate. I didn't feel I was construing what had happened. Sean had always told me; there was no reason to believe he didn't this time.

"If I had been more my usual self, I wouldn't have made the statement. But that would have looked terrible. I thought I was remembering when I looked at the chart. I was trying to explain what had happened. I recognized at the time that the statement I was making was very damaging but it was inconceivable to me to lie. No way."

But, within 10 days, Cochrane realized that his statement was incorrect and that, in fact, the navigator had told him the ship would arrive that morning at 10 a.m., he said.

"I didn't double-check him--he was a reliable officer," said Cochrane, wearily. Cochrane said he was able to jog his memory by talking with his executive officer, who said the navigator had suggested an early-morning briefing before reaching the strait.

The charts also contained a note that Cochrane said he had directed the navigator to write about going into column formation with another ship before entering the strait at mid-morning.

Within days, Cochrane said, he realized that his statement was in error and that he had made it because he had felt so guilty.

"Because I felt so responsible, I was ready initially to plead guilty to anything," Cochrane said. "I was the commanding officer, and therefore, by definition, I was guilty. But, talking to senior officers, I realized there was a difference between responsibility and criminal liability. I decided I was not a criminal, and that I was not going to just roll over and be branded as one."

From that point on, Cochrane began the battle to salvage his career. He offered to resign rather than endure a court-martial. But that offer was refused. Then he braced himself for the ordeal of spilling out the details before a courtroom of how he ran his ship.

Appearing poised but strained, he sat through the hearing, watching as 21 years of accomplishments threatened to dissolve. And, when the judge announced that Cochrane was not guilty of dereliction of duty and negligently endangering his ship, the skipper gave a weak smile.

"I knew I was not guilty," said Cochrane, his face flushed. "And I'm not bitter. I still love the United States Navy."

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