“Arrogance killed my son. The arrogance of one man killed 10 sailors.”
The impassioned words of Thomas Bushell cut through the hushed Washington Navy Yard courtroom during the May 25 special court-martial as the grieving father fought back tears to honor his son, Electronics Technician 1st Class Kevin S. Bushell, one of 10 sailors killed when the destroyer John S. McCain collided with a 600-foot-long oil tanker on Aug. 21.
The father, one of a handful of Kevin Bushell’s relatives who issued statements, was joined by family members of other sailors who also died on the ship, including Information Systems Technician 2nd Class Timothy Thomas Eckels Jr., Electronics Technician 2nd Class Dustin Doyon, Interior Communications Electrician 2nd Class Logan S. Palmer, Chief Interior Communications Electrician Abraham Lopez, and Chief Electronics Technician Charles N. Findley.
One by one, 15 gut-wrenching statements were read aloud while the destroyer’s crestfallen former commanding officer, Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez, sat only feet away, listening intently, all part of a court-martial sentencing phase following Sanchez’s guilty plea for dereliction of duty.
“It takes three minutes to die from drowning,” Bushell continued. “And it was three minutes of the most agonizing pain...burning his mouth, lungs, esophagus, stomach. I’ve seen the autopsy photos and they’re not pretty. Bones of Kevin’s arm are visible, as his skin peeled away from chemicals and sea water.”
Thomas Bushell said his weight dropped from 220 pounds to under 175 in the months following his son’s death. He no longer has a desire to keep the business he wanted to pass on to his son, he continued, and has difficulty finding a semblance of purpose in each day, a sentiment echoed by other family members.
“I feel like a shell of my former self,” Kevin Bushell’s mother, Karen, wrote in a statement that was read to the court. “I have very little desire to live. I’ve had nightmares about his body floating out at sea. Sometimes he was floating peacefully. Sometimes he was ripped apart.”
“Making it through a full day and acting like everything is OK is exhausting,” said Bushell’s step-sister, Stephanie.
Krystal Bushell, Kevin’s sister-in-law, told the court she has “spent many sleepless nights wrapping my arms around [her husband] while he cries for his brother.
“I have seen the light inside him dim.”
‘THE SAFEST PLACE TO BE’
The destroyer John S. McCain collided with the oil tanker Alnic MC a little after 5 a.m. on Aug. 21, puncturing a 28-foot hole in the warship and sending hundreds of bewildered sailors into a frenzy of survival.
Sea water and oil rushed into the newly-created cavity on the port side of the ship that had once seemed impenetrable to those serving onboard.
“I’m on a nuclear armed destroyer,” Charles Findley, 31, once told his sister, Amy Winters. “This ship is the safest place to be.”
Berthing 5, a 15-foot area that was crushed into a space of only 5 feet, flooded almost instantly. Twelve sailors from the berthing were resting when the collision rocked the ship — 10 were soon reported missing.
Back in the U.S., families of the missing sailors flew from all over the country to join together in solidarity, clinging to hope that their loved one would defy the odds and emerge unscathed.
“[We] waited for our fears to be dismissed, because denial told us Kevin would be coming home again,” said Bushell’s step-sister, Stephanie, who said she collapsed when she received the phone call confirming Kevin was dead.
“I went to bed that night knowing he was alive,” Karen Bushell wrote. “I woke up the next morning to a knock at the door. All my hope deflated.”
Winters was celebrating her birthday when she learned of her brother’s death. Nothing has been the same since, she said.
“[It’s been] a living hell,” said Winters. “I’ve ignored my needs, my kids, my husband. While I cherish ... memories, I also curse them, because they don’t give me a moment of silence. It’s been a long year and I’m tired. I’m tired of being angry.”
On the stand, the brother of Abraham Lopez read a statement from the sailor’s wife, who faced the colossal charge of comforting the couple’s daughter during the turmoil.
“Don’t worry, he's safe,” the brother, Richard Lopez, read. “Daddy is a strong man.”
Lopez, 39, needed just over three more months of Navy service to reach his 20-year mark and retire. But because he died only months before his December 2017 end-of-service date, his brother said his family will receive none of the benefits afforded to a retired sailor.
A Navy official who spoke on background, however, told Navy Times that “survivors of deceased service members receive benefits that include a monthly benefit called Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, a one-time death gratuity, Service Member’s Life Insurance payment, one year’s housing allowance, and Tricare coverage for children until age 21 and surviving spouses until remarriage.
“Only the Tricare benefit is available to survivors of retirees,” the official said. “Unless the retiree enrolled in the Survivor Benefit Program, survivors do not receive any of a retired service member’s pension.”
Thousands of miles away, a newlywed scrambled that August morning to keep abreast of the McCain’s search-and-rescue efforts.
Riho Findley met her husband Charles while he was stationed in Japan. Fighting back an avalanche of emotion in the Washington Navy Yard courtroom on Friday, she told Sanchez that discovering her husband was among the dead was her “worst nightmare” and “the worst day I have ever had.”
Riho’s first visit to the United States and introduction to Charles’ family was for his funeral.
One after another, each statement yielded nightmarish details of the minutes and hours before and after receiving the inconceivable news.
“That day will be scorched in my mind,” said Rachel Eckels, mother of Timothy Thomas Eckels Jr., 23.
“I would have never thought I would have given the Navy a strong, determined young man, and in return I would receive a folded up flag.”
Assigning blame has proven difficult in the collisions of both the destroyers Fitzgerald and McCain. Extensive reviews by the Navy were conducted before the conclusion was reached that the sea service, not the other vessels, were at fault in both catastrophes.
Deciphering which sailors were most culpable in each wreck has added yet another wrinkle of complexity in subsequent proceedings.
Many family members of the McCain sailors, however, implied that blame doesn't need to be equally divided.
The commanding officer has total responsibility, Thomas Bushell said, “no matter if he’s on the bridge, in the head or sleeping.”
When it was her turn to read a written statement, Karen Doyon, the mother of Electronics Technician 2nd Class Dustin Doyon, 26, took the podium wearing her son’s dog tags.
“My son was my friend, my happiness, my encouragement,” she said. “I know what a mother feels to have her heart pierced. The thought of his lungs filling with diesel fuel and sea water ... I am haunted by it every day.”
It only takes about 60 seconds to rouse sailors when an alarm is sounded, Doyon continued, but there was no alarm. Five short blasts were never sounded. The “CO had over 120 seconds to do something. What the hell was he thinking?”
Without an alarm or warning, Logan Palmer, 23, became trapped in Berthing 5. Palmer had only been on the ship for a few months and enlisted in the Navy just over a year before the collision.
“For 23 years we raised him, kept him alive,” the sailor’s mother, Theresa Palmer, said through tears as she looked at Sanchez. “We handed him off to you for three months” and he was killed.
After the final family member in attendance was seated, Sanchez was afforded the opportunity to issue a statement of his own.
“They were under my charge and I failed,” he said to the families. “I willingly accept accountability and responsibility. Nothing in Navy training can prepare you for the deaths of your sailors.”
The former commanding officer then asked the families to find some solace in the notion that their loved ones “were with family” when they died.
As part of a pretrial agreement, Sanchez pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty for his role in the collision. He was sentenced by Navy judge advocate Capt. Charles Purnell to a letter of reprimand and a forfeiture of $2,000 per month for three months. He currently has a base pay of $9,009 per month.
Also as part of the plea deal, Sanchez will submit a retirement request.
“Don’t be the eleventh casualty of McCain,” the judge told Sanchez. “You still have a lot to contribute.”
Toward the end of the court-martial, Sanchez’s wife of 16 years, Maria Zapata Yordan, took the stand, tearfully describing the effect of 10 lives weighing on her husband.
“He would say he's fine,” she said, “but during the night in his sleep he would start screaming.”
“Part of this process is about closure,” Sanchez’s defense attorney, Cmdr. Stuart Kirkby, told the court. Turning toward Yordan, Kirkby asked whether the court-martial would bring Sanchez any such closure.
“No,” she answered, wiping away tears. “It’s never going to end.”
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.