Sailor from Cherry Hill died in ship crash, Navy says

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When Kenneth Aaron Smith joined the Navy in 2014, fresh out of high school in Cherry Hill, it seemed it was what he was destined to do, following his father and grandfather. This week, the young sailor’s career was tragically cut short.

Smith, 22, was killed in the collision Monday between the destroyer John S. McCain and an oil tanker near Singapore, the Navy confirmed Thursday. The Navy also released the names of nine others missing in the accident, all petty officers. They are presumed to have died.

An electronics technician third class, Smith graduated from Cherry Hill High School East in 2013, and in 2014 followed in the footsteps of his father, Darryl, and grandfather, in joining the Navy. He boarded the McCain in 2015, according to a report in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot.

In a statement issued by the Navy on behalf of the family, Darryl Smith said that his son “was a great young man, son and Sailor” and that he was “incredibly proud” of his son’s service to the country.

“He truly loved his family, the Navy, and his shipmates. He will be greatly missed, and I am thankful we had 22 wonderful years together,” the elder Smith said. “Most important, we ask you to keep in your thoughts and prayers all the families and friends of those affected by this tragedy.”

Kenneth Smith grew up in Novi, Mich., and moved to Norfolk, Va., as a teenager to live with his father and participate in ROTC. His mother, April Brandon, who lives in a Detroit suburb, said her son had considered making the Navy a career, as his father did.

Smith moved to Cherry Hill while in high school when his father transferred to a job in New Jersey.

On Thursday, visitors stopped by the family’s tan split-level home on a quiet street. A Cherry Hill police cruiser was in front of the house and an officer asked a reporter to respect the family’s request for privacy.

Camera icon Jan Hefler

Cherry Hill police parked outside the family home of Kenneth Aaron Smith, a sailor who was killed in the collision between the destroyer John S. McCain and an oil tanker near Singapore. Police said they were there to protect the family’s privacy.

“It’s so sad.  I saw some officers knocking on their door … but I didn’t want to pry, especially since they were probably bringing them the news,” said Vicky Korman, who lives nearby.  Korman, 75, a retired food service worker, said the family moved in about two years ago and she didn’t know the young sailor.

Another neighbor, John Kontovrakis, also said he didn’t know Smith’s family, but expressed sorrow at his death.

“You go to do your duty to your country, and you lose your life,” said Kontovrakis, 83, who said he was a sailor when he lived in Greece and then spent 10 years in the Merchant Marine.  “I think this collision was a mistake. There’s so much equipment out there that it’s hard to hit anything.  How did the ships come so close?”

At Cherry Hill East, Kenneth Smith was a member of the video game club for two years and served as president his senior year, according to his yearbook profile, which included the quote: “Life is a game; the question is, do you have the controller?” On his Facebook page, Smith wrote: “I  work all day and work slightly less all night. Hooya.”

Andrew Adler, a Cherry Hill East classmate who now lives in New York, said Smith had “a reputation of being a very nice, respectful, good kid. It’s a tragic loss for the family, friends, and the community and I am feeling incredibly sad.”

Besides his love of video games, Smith was remembered by classmates in New Jersey and Virginia as a fun-loving guy with a sense of humor. He had big dreams of becoming a star on YouTube with his video games, said Niana Jasso, who met Smith in 2009 at Deep Creek High School in Chesapeake, Va., during their freshman year.

“He was extremely funny. He always had you laughing even when you were down,” said Jasso, 23, who now lives in California. “He was really kind.”

Jasso said Smith visited with her and her wife, Marissa, in November. The trio went to Universal Studios and took photographs with cartoon characters, she said. Jasso said she spoke with Smith about a week ago. They mainly talked about Rick and Morty, one of his favorite shows, she said.

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Kenneth Smith in November 2016 photo during a visit to Universal Studios with high school classmate Niana Jasso and her wife, Marissa Jasso.

“I didn’t hear from him after that,” Jasso said.

Smith was the first sailor confirmed dead in Monday’s collision near Singapore. The extensive damage to the warship has slowed the search for bodies. Divers will continue search and recovery efforts inside flooded compartments in the ship for the missing sailors, the Navy said.

Condolences poured in on Twitter and the Facebook page of Smith’s mother.

“So very sorry for your great loss,” one wrote. “May Kenneth rest easy and at peace. He will always be an American hero.”

In a statement, Cherry Hill Mayor Chuck Cahn offered prayers and condolences to the family.

“On behalf of the members of Township Council and our entire Cherry Hill community, I want to express my sincere gratitude for the service and sacrifice of Petty Officer Smith, and all those who serve and defend the United States at home and abroad,” Cahn wrote.

The Navy said it was suspending efforts to scour the seas east of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore for any survivors.

Smith was in the fourth year of a seven-year commitment. He worked in radar technology.

Samikshya Shrestha, 20, a mass communications major at Temple University in Japan, said she met Smith this summer through an online dating site. The McCain’s homeport is Yokosuka.

“He was sitting there with this huge smile on his face,” she said in a message. “He was goofy, nerdy, and the smartest man I have ever seen.”

Camera icon Samikshya Shrestha

Kenneth Smith with Temple University Japan student Samikshya Shrestha. She described Smith as the “smartest man” she had ever met.

Her last communication with Smith was a text message on Sunday when the McCain hit port, she said. In her last text, she said she told him “I love him and for him to take care and stay safe.”

Still missing are: Charles Nathan Findley, 31, of Amazonia, Mo.; Abraham Lopez, 39, of El Paso, Texas; Kevin Sayer Bushell, 26, of Gaithersburg, Md.; Jacob Daniel Drake, 21, of Cable, Ohio; Timothy Thomas Eckels Jr., 23, of Manchester, Md.;  Corey George Ingram, 28, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; Dustin Louis Doyon, 26, of Suffield, Conn.; John Henry Hoagland III, 20, of Killeen, Texas; and  Logan Stephen Palmer, 23, of Decatur, Ill.

Camera icon Wong Maye-E

Singaporese navy ship Brave (right) sails from the Tuas naval base on a search mission for John S. McCain’s missing sailors.

The collision between the McCain and the 30,000-ton oil tanker ripped a gaping hole in the destroyer’s hull. The McCain had been heading to Singapore on a routine port visit.The Navy on Wednesday removed the head of the Seventh Fleet, which has sustained four accidents since January, two of them fatal.

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