A little after 1:30 a.m. on June 17, 2017, Alexander Vaughan tumbled from his bunk onto the floor of his sleeping quarters on board the Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald. The shock of cold, salty water snapped him awake. He struggled to his feet and felt a torrent rushing past his thighs.
Around him, sailors were screaming. “Water on deck. Water on deck!” Vaughan fumbled for his black plastic glasses and strained to see through the darkness of the windowless compartment.
Underneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean, 12 miles off the coast of Japan, the tidy world of Berthing 2 had come undone. Cramped bunk beds that sailors called coffin racks tilted at crazy angles. Beige metal footlockers bobbed through the water. Shoes, clothes, mattresses, even an exercise bicycle careered in the murk, blocking the narrow passageways of the sleeping compartment.
In the dim light of emergency lanterns, Vaughan glimpsed men leaping from their beds. Others fought through the flotsam to reach the exit ladder next to Vaughan’s bunk on the port side of the ship. Tens of thousands of gallons of seawater were flooding into the compartment from a gash that had ripped through the Fitzgerald’s steel hull like it was wrapping paper.
As a petty officer first class, these were his sailors, and in those first foggy seconds Vaughan realized they were in danger of drowning.