Our cover story on newsstands this week focuses on the accidental death of Personnel Specialist 1st Class (SW/AW) Regan Young, who was killed Nov. 23, 2011, aboard the amphibious assault ship Essex. That day, Essex was anchored off Bali, Indonesia, and Young had been sitting beneath a NATO Sea Sparrow launcher all the way aft on the ship, using his cellphone to make some calls before the ship weighed anchor. Around the same time, technicians began maintenance on the aft launcher. But they didn’t post the required safety observer, didn’t sound the warning bell and didn’t follow standard start-up procedures, triggering a violent and known launcher error. Here’s an excerpt from our story:
“At the turn of the switch, the launcher’s stow locks disengaged and its servo motors energized. And then, unexpectedly, the massive launcher moved. It spun clockwise nearly a full turn as its cells rose skyward, a dynamic and random motion that can be triggered when the system is improperly initialized.
It struck Young, a 37-year-old father of two who was three weeks from transferring, its lower edge pinning him down as it dragged him across the non-skin deck.
Alarmed to hear the mount spin, the fire controlman rushed topside. He saw Young stagger into the ship, blood running down his face. Young collapsed. At 8:22 a.m., a medical emergency was called away. One of the missile cell covers had shattered and Young’s cell phone, multitool, watch and sunglasses were strewn inside the red painted circle around the launcher, which warned in white block letters: “DANGER AREA.”
Young was pronounced dead at 10:07 a.m. of “severe blunt force trauma to his body” from the launcher’s impact, concluded a subsequent command investigation, which was obtained by Navy Times via Freedom of Information Act request. It found complacency and lax oversight among the factors that led to Young’s death, the fleet’s first maintenance-related death in 1.5 years and a preventable tragedy that has raised renewed questions about whether the Navy is getting safety right.
Indeed, the busted alarm bell — a $1,352.56 part — and the unusual, violent motion of the launcher seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary to the fire controlmen entrusted to safely operate the system.
“Sometimes when you turn on the launcher, it will move on its own, the 28-year-old FC, who had flipped the launcher into remote, told a master-at-arms in a statement signed four minutes after Young was pronounced dead. “This is not something that happens all the time, but there is a danger circle around the launcher for a reason.” He added that he was going to act as the safety observer after he had powered up the launcher.
The final report, which provided the timeline of events that led up to the tragedy, made clear that Essex’s maintenance problems went all the way to the top.“
For the rest of the story, pick up Navy Times at a newsstand this week or click here to subscribe.