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A Hero's Story From The Scramble To Survive On The USS Fitzgerald

Erin Rehm receives the American flag from Vice Adm. Jan Tighe during the graveside service for her husband, U.S. Navy Fire Controlman 1st Class Gary Rehm Jr. at Arlington National Cemetery on Aug. 16. He was one of seven sailors killed on June 17 when the USS Fitzgerald collided with a cargo ship off the coast of Japan. A Navy report says Rehm helped rescue one of his shipmates.

At 1:30 a.m. on June 17, sailors on the USS Fitzgerald were jolted awake in their bunks. Some were thrown to the floor. Their guided missile destroyer had just collided with a cargo ship off the coast of Japan.

A gaping hole was gashed into their living quarters, two levels below deck, and they were engulfed in a rush of cold seawater.

"It's coming in in torrents. So there's currents and it's beginning to swirl, so mattresses are being picked up, pillows are picked up. Anything that's loose. Tables, chairs are beginning to swirl around," said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain at the Center for a New American Security who has studied the Navy's detailed account of the collision.

"And it's all occurring in the dark," he said. "It's chaos."

Within a minute, the water in the living quarters was waist-deep. Moments later, it reached the ceiling.

The report lays out how the sailors helped each other. Only one rescuer is mentioned by name: Fire Controlman 1st Class Gary Rehm Jr.

"He was always the first one to run to something," said Erin Rehm, his widow. With tears running down her cheeks, she shared memories of her husband at her in-laws' kitchen table in Williamsburg, Va.

"It wasn't just his shipmates. He was like that with everybody. If any of my friends were in trouble or needed something, he was like, 'Oh, you have car trouble. Let me see what I can do. Bring your car over,'" she said. "That's just what he did. He was Mr. Fix-It."

No matter where in the world he was, Rehm called Erin daily.

"The gist of our conversations were the same every day," she said. "How much I loved him and missed him. I mean, it was just normal, silly conversation. We were just very goofy together, always laughing. I think there were probably about three 'I love you's' before he hung up, because that was pretty common for us."

A father figure

At 37, Rehm was a veteran on the ship. He called his younger shipmates his kids. Rehm invited them to holiday meals with Erin at their home. He was approaching 20 years of service, making him eligible to retire.

A two-year tour in Japan was winding down, and he was due back in Virginia this month. He and Erin were talking about what he would do next.

"He had the thought of being a fireman," she said. "I said, 'Why would you want to do that? You're going to get out of the Navy, do something easy and no so life-threatening.' He wanted to make a difference."

The Navy report says Rehm freed a shipmate trapped by a falling locker. That sailor made it through the water to the other side of the listing ship, and reached a ladder leading to an open hatch above.

At the ladder, two sailors helped him to safety. When the water reached neck-level, those two sailors then climbed the ladder themselves.

From the next level up, they stuck their arms into the murky water they had just escaped and grabbed a submerged sailor. And then another.

The Navy report described that last survivor as red-faced and choking on the salty water.

Sealing the hatch

By now, the water was surging upward through the hatch — presenting a terrible dilemma.

"The Fitzgerald is in trouble. She's in deep trouble," said Hendrix, the retired captain. "If you don't seal that room, you risk losing the entire ship."

Yet more sailors were in the water below. Sealing the hatch would mean sealing their fate.

"You have to place the needs of the entire crew ahead of the needs of the individual sailors, who may well be your friends," Hendrix said. "They may have been somebody who had the bunk next to you, and yet your responsibility at that moment is to seal that hatch."

By now, the next level up was flooding. The sailors climbed to the main deck and sealed the hatch there.

"It's an awful burden, as you consider that yours was the action that essentially made the final decision in those other sailors' lives," Hendrix said. "Yet those sailors were heroic, in the sense that they ended up saving the entire ship and crew."

Twenty-eight sailors escaped the living quarters. Seven did not. One was Gary Rehm.

It's not clear what happened in his final moments. But Hendrix has a strong inkling.

"What we do know is that he stopped to save at least one sailor," he said. "There's a presumption that he is continuing with his task, to look elsewhere to find any other sailors that might be trapped."

After the accident, Navy divers descended into the living quarters to recover the seven bodies.

The last one they found, in a bathroom clogged with wreckage, was Rehm.

A second deadly collision

Just nine weeks after the Fitzgerald's accident, the USS John S. McCain also suffered a large gash in a nighttime collision with a huge commercial ship in a congested Asian shipping lane. Ten sailors died in the flooded quarters below deck.

Analysts have offered several theories about why these accidents are happening: Years of heavy demands. Not enough training. Poor fundamental seamanship.

The Navy's top admiral, John Richardson, has ordered a comprehensive review of the way the Navy operates. Meanwhile, more than 36,000 people have signed a petition asking the Navy to name a ship in memory of Gary Rehm.

Rehm's parents, Gary Rehm Sr. and Anita Rehm, said their son wanted to join the Navy before he finished high school, and they had always feared for his safety.

"His dad didn't want him to join. He wanted me to talk him out of it," Anita Rehm said.

"It's always dangerous in the military. You take your chances," Gary Rehm Sr. added.

"He always said, 'Mom, you worry too much. What's gonna happen? I'm on a big ship,'" Anita Rehm said. "And we got to find out what happens on a big ship."

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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