The search for seven US Navy sailors missing after their destroyer collided with a cargo ship in waters off Japan has been called off after several bodies were found in the ship’s flooded compartments, including sleeping quarters.
Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, commander for the Navy’s 7th Fleet, described the damage and flooding to the USS Fitzgerald, which included a big puncture under the waterline, as extensive.
He said the crew had to fight to keep the ship afloat, and that the ship’s captain was lucky to have survived.
“The damage was significant, this was not a small collision,” Vice Admiral Aucoin said.
He said the ship was salvageable, but repairs would likely take months.
Navy divers found “a number of” bodies inside the ship after it returned to the 7th Fleet’s home base in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, with the help of tugboats.
Vice Admiral Aucoin would not say how many bodies were recovered, pending notification of next of kin.
Seven sailors were reported missing when the collision happened, but not all of those missing were recovered, US Navy spokeswoman Yoko Kato said.
She did not say how many were found.
Japanese media outlets were earlier reporting that all seven missing sailors had been found dead.
Crash impact, flooding may have killed sailors: Navy
Those who did not survive might have killed by the impact of the crash or drowned by the flooding, Navy spokesman Lieutenant Paul Newell said.
Most of the nearly 300 sailors aboard would have been asleep in their berths at the time of the collision.
Two berthing spaces, a machinery room and the radio room were damaged and began taking in water after the destroyer was rammed mid-right side of the ship.
Vice Admiral Aucoin said the ship came close to sinking or foundering after the collision, which happened about 2:20am on Saturday.
“You can’t see most of the damage, the damage is mostly underneath the waterline, and it’s a large gash near the keel of the ship.
“The water flow was tremendous, and so there wasn’t a lot of time in those spaces that were open to the sea.
“And as you can see now the ship is still listing, so they had to fight the ship to keep it above the surface. It was traumatic.”
The Fitzgerald’s captain, Commander Bryce Benson, was airlifted from the ship’s deck after daybreak on Saturday to the US Naval Hospital in Yokosuka with a head injury.
Two other crew members suffered cuts and bruises and were also flown out by helicopter.
“His cabin was destroyed, he is lucky to be alive,” Vice Admiral Aucoin said of Commander Benson.
Cause of collision under investigation
The guided missile destroyer was hit amidships by a Philippine-flagged container ship — more than three times its size — south of Tokyo Bay in Japan early on Saturday.
The container ship ACX Crystal weighs 29,060 tons (26,363 tonnes) and is 222 metres long, much larger than the 8,315-ton (7,543-tonne) Navy destroyer.
The container ship’s left bow was dented and scraped, but it did not appear to have sustained any major structural damage.
All of the ACX Crystal’s 20-member Filipino crew were safe, said Japanese shipping company Nippon Yusen KK, which operates the Philippine-flagged ship.
The Japanese coast guard questioned crew members of the ACX Crystal, and was treating the incident as a case of possible professional negligence, according to regional coast guard official Masayuki Obara.
Conditions were clear at the time of the collision, though the area is particularly busy with sea traffic.
Vice Admiral Aucoin would not speculate on the cause of the collision. He said he would order a full and thorough investigation.