MH-60S helicopter
An MH-60S helicopter. Navy photo via Wikimedia Commons

Two helicopters from the San Diego-based USS America Wednesday were combing a newly expanded search area in the South China Sea where 10 sailors went missing when the USS John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker earlier this week, Navy officials said.

Meanwhile, Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet, has relieved the commander of the McCain’s Pacific-based 7th Fleet, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command.”

The collision involving the McCain, a guided-missile destroyer, was the second deadly collision in the 7th Fleet following a similar crash in June that killed seven sailors, including two San Diego men, aboard the USS Fitzgerald.

“Rear Adm. Phil Sawyer, who has already been nominated and confirmed for the position and promotion to vice admiral, will assume command” of the 7th Fleet immediately, the Navy announced.

At a pier in Singapore, Navy and Marine Corps divers were continuing to search the 505-foot McCain, which collided early Monday with the 600-foot merchant ship Alnic MC in one of the busiest stretches of water in the world.

The divers found “some of the remains” of the 10 missing sailors inside flooded compartments aboard the American warship on Tuesday, the same day the Royal Malaysian Navy discovered the remains of at least one other sailor near the crash site in the Straits of Malacca. But as the days pass, the searches both on the ship and in the sea are spreading, the Navy said.

“At sea, search efforts are focused on an area east of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore,” the Navy said. “The area centers around the point of collision, and is expanding to encompass a greater area as time goes on.”

Involved in that search are the two SH-60S helicopters from the USS America, a San Diego-based amphibious assault ship. Both the Royal Malaysian Navy and the Republic of Singapore Navy are assisting in the search on the water.

The USS America, docked at the same Singapore pier as the McCain, is also providing food and shelter to sailors assigned to the damaged Navy ship.

On Monday, the Navy announced it was ordering an “operational pause” for all fleets around the world as it conducts a comprehensive review of the recent collisions, most notable among them those involving the McCain and the Fitzgerald. That collision, on June 17, killed seven sailors, including Yeoman 3rd Class Shingo Alexander Douglass, 25, from San Diego, and Fire Controlman 2nd Class Carlos Victor Ganzon Sibayan, 23, from Chula Vista. Both men were posthumously promoted earlier this month.

An investigation into that collision resulted in the ship’s top commanders being relieved of duty, but Navy officials are launching a wider- ranging review to examine all operations, especially in the Pacific.

“This trend demands more forceful action,” Adm. John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, said Monday. “As such, I’ve directed an operational pause be taken in all of our fleets around the world. In addition to that operational pause, I’ve directed a comprehensive review to get at the contributing factors — the root causes — of these incidents.”

The review will be conducted on “a very tight timeline” by a “broad and diverse” team of military and non-military authorities, Richardson said.

—City News Service