The bodies of seven U.S. sailors missing after the USS Fitzgerald collided with the Philippines-registered ACX Crystal early Saturday were found in flooded compartments of US destroyer, which came close to sinking after the collision tore a gash under the warship’s waterline, the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet commander said on Sunday.
Full navy statement below:
A number of Sailors’ remains that were missing from the collision between USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) and a merchant ship have been found. As search and rescue crews gained access to the spaces that were damaged during the collision this morning, the missing Sailors were located in the flooded berthing compartments. They are currently being transferred to Naval Hospital Yokosuka where they will be identified.
The families are being notified and being provided the support they need during this difficult time. The names of the Sailors will be released after all notifications are made.
The navy added that the sailors names will be released after all notifications.
Speaking at a news conference, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin said the impact crushed berthing cabins below the waterline and ripped open a large hole in the vessel. Bodies of the missing sailors were found in the berthing cabins. Aucoin declined to say how many of the seven missing sailors had been recovered, but Japanese media said all had died.
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“Out of concern for the families and the notification process, I will decline to state how many we have found at this time,” Aucoin told a news conference and added that the USS Fitzgerald could have foundered, or even sunk, if not for the crew’s efforts to save the ship, he said (the full transcript of his speech can be found here).
“The damage was significant. There was a big gash under the water,” Aucoin said at Yokosuka naval base, home of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, the docked Fitzgerald behind him. “A significant portion of the crew was sleeping” when the destroyer collided with the Philippine-flagged container ship, destroying the commander’s cabin, he said.
The Fitzgerald is salvageable, he said, but repairs will likely take months. “Hopefully less than a year. You will see the USS Fitzgerald back,” Aucoin said.
Multiple U.S. and Japanese investigations are under way on how a ship as large as the container could ram into the warship in clear weather.
Aucoin was asked if damage on the starboard side indicated the U.S. ship could have been at fault, but the Vice Admiral declined to speculate on the cause of the collision. According to maritime rules vessels are supposed to give way to ships on their starboard.
Meanwhile, according to Reuters Japanese media reported that local authorities were looking into the possibility of “endangerment of traffic caused by professional negligence”, but it was not clear whether that might apply to either or both of the vessels. The U.S. Navy said the collision happened at about 2:30 a.m. local time (1730 GMT Friday), while the Japanese Coast Guard said it was 1:30 a.m. local time.
Japan’s Nippon Yusen KK, which charters the container ship, ACX Crystal, said in a statement on Saturday it would “cooperate fully” with the Coast Guard’s investigation of the incident. At around 29,000 tons displacement, the ship dwarfed the 8,315-ton U.S. warship. It was carrying 1,080 containers from the port of Nagoya to Tokyo. None of the 20 crew members aboard the container ship, all Filipino, were injured, and the ship was not leaking oil, Nippon Yusen said. The ship arrived at Tokyo Bay later on Saturday.
The waterways approaching Tokyo Bay are busy with commercial vessels sailing to and from Japan’s two biggest container ports in Tokyo and Yokohama. But such collisions at sea are rare in an age of advanced navigational technology.
Naval historians recall possibly the last time a warship was hit by a larger vessel in peacetime was in 1964 off the coast of Australia’s New South Wales. The HMAS Melbourne, an aircraft carrier, collided with the destroyer HMAS Voyager, shearing the much smaller vessel in half and killing 82 of the Voyager’s crew.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a message to U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday saying he was “in deep sorrow” over the Fitzgerald incident. He added that he “highly respects people involved in the U.S. military who every day make a big contribution for protecting peace for our nation and the region under the strong U.S.-Japan alliance.”
A spokesman for the Japanese coast guard said its investigation was continuing, and Filipino crew members of the ACX Crystal had been questioned. He declined to discuss further details of the probe.
The WSJ notes that collisions at sea for the U.S. Navy are extremely uncommon, said Bryan McGrath, a former destroyer captain, who said they occur only once or twice a decade, if that. He said he couldn’t remember a recent collision that was this consequential.
“There are 275 ships in the Navy and 100 are under way all over the world,” navigating “millions and millions of miles” every year, said Mr. McGrath, who retired in 2008 and is now a consultant. “This is very, very rare.”
U.S. naval history includes a number of notable mishaps. In 2005, the USS San Francisco, a Los Angeles-class submarine, hit a seamount or underwater mountain, injuring dozens of crew. In 2001, the USS Greeneville, another Los Angeles-class sub, performed an emergency ballast blow for special visitors aboard the vessel, surfacing quickly and hitting a Japanese fishing ship on the surface near Hawaii, killing nine crew members of the Japanese vessel.
In one of the Navy’s worst incidents, the aircraft carrier Wasp in April 1952 collided with the destroyer Hobson in the North Atlantic, killing 176 men.
Mr. McGrath declined to speculate as to what occurred or who or what might be to blame in the Fitzgerald incident. The collision occurred in darkness in a high-traffic area of the Pacific, he said. The most concerning aspect of the collision, from the destroyer’s point of view, is the damage to the Fitzgerald’s starboard side below the waterline, resulting from the container ship’s construction and the way its bow hit, he said.
As reported yesterday, the Fitzgerald collided with the merchant vessel more than three times its size some 56 nautical miles southwest of Yokosuka early on Saturday. Three people were evacuated to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Yokosuka after the collision, including the ship’s commanding officer, Bryce Benson, who was reported to be in stable condition. According to Reuters, Benson took command of the Fitzgerald on May 13. He had previously commanded a minesweeper based in Sasebo in western Japan.
The Fitzgerald limped into port on Saturday evening, listing around 5 degrees, a U.S. Navy spokesman in Yokosuka said. The flooding was in two berthing compartments, the radio room and auxiliary machine room, he said. There were 285 crew onboard.
Among the many lingering questions that should be asked is why was the radar and communication system on the Fitzgerald turned off? Also, why was US navy fleet and related satellite coverage from Hawaii and Guam MIA, and with the ships on collision course, why nobody was alerted especially since 2AM in Japan means it was working hours in the USA. A separate question: what and who was on that Philippine flag containership heading into Tokyo?