WASHINGTON (AP) -- The captain of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier facing a growing outbreak of the coronavirus on his ship was fired by Navy leaders who said he created a panic by sending his memo pleading for help to too many people.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said the ship's commander, Capt. Brett Crozier, "demonstrated extremely poor judgment" in the middle of a crisis. He said the captain copied too many people on the memo, which was leaked to a California newspaper and quickly spread to many news outlets.
Modly's decision to remove Crozier as ship commander was immediately condemned by members of the House Armed Services Committee, who called it a "destabilizing move" that will "likely put our service members at greater risk and jeopardize our fleet's readiness."
Modly told Pentagon reporters during an abruptly called press conference Thursday that Crozier should have gone directly to his immediate commanders, who were already moving to help the ship. And he said Crozier created a panic by suggesting 50 sailors could die.
The USS Theodore Roosevelt, with a crew of nearly 5,000, is docked in Guam, and the Navy has said as many as 3,000 will be taken off the ship and quarantined by Friday. More than 100 sailors on the ship have tested positive for the virus, but none is hospitalized.
"What it does, it undermines our efforts and the chain of command's efforts to address this problem and creates a panic and creates the perception that the Navy is not on the job, the government is not on the job, and it's just not true," Modly said.
He complained that Crozier sent the memo to people outside his chain of command and in a non-secure, unclassified email. And, he said he concluded that the captain's ability to react professionally was overwhelmed by the virus challenge, "when acting professionally was what was needed most. We do, and we should, expect more from the commanding officers of our aircraft carriers."
Earlier this week, Modly told reporters that Crozier would not be relieved of duty for trying to protect his sailors, but he left the door open for punishment if the captain leaked the memo to the press. On Thursday, Modly said he has no information to suggest that Crozier leaked the memo to the press.
He said that if Crozier had communicated only with his leadership and not widely distributed the memo, he would likely still have a job. He took sole responsibility for the decision to fire Crozier and said he got no pressure from the White House to do so.
Democrats on the House committee issued a joint statement in support of Crozier. They said that while the captain went outside his chain of command, the pandemic presents a new set of challenges.
"Captain Crozier was justifiably concerned about the health and safety of his crew, but he did not handle the immense pressure appropriately," the lawmakers said. "However, relieving him of his command is an overreaction."
Sen. Jack Reed, top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he told Modly that Navy leaders must make it clear that the decision to fire Crozier doesn't inhibit others from taking steps to protect their sailors and Marines.
And he said the incident "raised critical questions" about the Navy's strategy to combat the virus across the fleet.
Crozier, in his memo, raised warnings the ship was facing a growing outbreak of the coronavirus and asked for permission to isolate the bulk of his crew members on shore, an extraordinary move to take a carrier out of duty in an effort to save lives.
He said that removing all but 10% of the crew would be a "necessary risk" to stop the spread of the virus.
"We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset, our sailors," Crozier said.
As of Thursday, the Navy said 31% of the USS Theodore Roosevelt crew have been tested for the virus and 114 tested positive. The 180 sailors who tested negative will move into Guam hotels for quarantine. As testing continues, the ship will keep enough sailors on board to sustain essential services and sanitize the ship in port.