SAN DIEGO — Sporting crumpled catwalks and smashed lifeboats, the U.S. Navy vessel USS Essex managed to glide into San Diego Bay on Thursday, 24 hours after colliding with a tanker when the aging warship’s steering apparently failed.
Families of the crew aboard the “Iron Gator” waved homemade flags in celebration as the 21-year-old amphibious assault ship — which officials say needs to be overhauled — came into view through the morning’s thick marine layer.
Wednesday’s midmorning crash 120 miles off the coast of Southern California resulted in no injuries or fuel spills. The 844-foot-long Essex, which looks like a small aircraft carrier, was carrying 982 crew members. The tanker, the 677-foot USNS Yukon, was carrying 82.
“To me, it felt like a minor earthquake,” said Navy photographer Duke Richardson from Jersey City, N.J., who was in a photo lab on the Essex when it struck the Yukon.
He said some of the “newbies” on board were in a “state of shock” and let out some interesting “four-letter words” when the boat jolted and the collision alarms sounded.
Someone yelled “Man Down! Man Down!” the standard call to get emergency responders in place. No one was struck or fell. It was all over in less than a minute.
Andi Farquhar, the wife of a 36-year-old sailor, said her husband called her from the ship and said something bad had happened. She said he told her there was a collision but gave no details.
“I’m pretty sure it was scary,” Farquhar said.
Navy officials say they were still assessing the damage and did not have a damage estimate yet.
Officials showed reporters Thursday where the Yukon bumped into the Essex.
The warship looked like it had been in a super-sized fender bender at sea: Its starboard aircraft elevator was scraped and dented, and its railing bowed back the wrong way. A small section of catwalks were crumpled, and capsules holding lifeboats were smashed. Some of the guardrails were split open.
Joe Derie, a retired Coast Guard officer who specializes in marine accident investigations, said the costliest repair could be to the aircraft elevator, depending on the damage.
“That’s where the big bucks could be,” he said.
The Yukon arrived Wednesday afternoon at the Navy base in Coronado, Calif. Lt. Beth Teach said it suffered structural damage to its flight deck, lifeboats and davits, the arm-like structures that raise and lower small boats out of the water.
Officials were investigating what caused the steering to malfunction as the Essex lined up next to the Yukon to position itself to be refueled. They said they couldn’t say how fast the ships were moving at the time of the crash because the investigation was under way.
The standard speed for ships lining up to refuel at sea is about 13 knots, or 15 mph. No lines or hoses had been connected because the two vessels were just approaching each other.
Navy officials said it was the Essex’s first collision.
The vessel was returning from a 12-year stint in Japan to its homeport of San Diego and was scheduled for maintenance.
The Essex is in definite need of maintenance after being stationed so long in Sasebo, Japan, as command ship for the Navy’s Expeditionary Strike Group 7, officials said. It will be in the shipyard for a year to get needed upgrades and repairs.
“This ship’s overdue,” said ship spokesman Joe Kane. “It’s like any machine or your car, you got to bring it in.”
Last year, a piece of equipment aboard the Essex failed due to general wear and tear, and the ship was unable to participate in an exercise called Cobra Gold, said Cmdr. Ron Steiner, spokesman for the 7th Fleet.
Steiner said the Navy’s Pacific ships adhere to rigorous maintenance standards but scheduled maintenance periods have been interrupted by events. Last year, Amphibious Force 7th Fleet ships participated in 17 scheduled bilateral exercises and also helped with the recovery efforts in the aftermath of the Japan earthquake.
The Essex was traveling with a new crew that came aboard for the 17-day trip to California. The ship recently underwent a crew swap with another amphibious assault ship, the Bonhomme Richard, as part of a standard procedure in the Navy to keep its ships operating.
The Yukon, which was launched in 1993, has been involved in at least two previous collisions, including on Feb. 27, 2000, when it collided with a 135-foot civilian cargo ship while trying to enter Dubai’s Jebel Ali port in the United Arab Emirates. The Yukon sustained minor damage.
Less than five months later, it was hit by the USS Denver during refueling off the coast of Hawaii. Both ships sustained heavy damage.