Bodies of missing sailors found in flooded compartment of US destroyer; Japan interviews PH ship crew

June 18, 2017 - 9:06 AM
Damage to the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald after colliding with a Philippine-flagged merchant vessel of Japan. (Reuters)

YOKOSUKA, JAPAN – The bodies of a number of sailors who were missing after the US Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with a container vessel were found in flooded compartments of the damaged ship, the US Seventh Fleet said on Sunday.

Japanese media said all seven of the sailors who had been reported missing were found dead.

“Divers were able to access the space and found a number of bodies,” the Seventh Fleet said in a statement.

It said in an earlier statement the sailors were being transferred to a US naval hospital where they would be identified.

“The families are being notified and being provided the support they need during this difficult time,” the Seventh Fleet said.

The Fitzgerald, an Aegis guided missile destroyer, collided with the Philippine-flagged merchant vessel more than three times its size some 56 nautical miles southwest of Yokosuka early on Saturday.

Japan probers interview Filipino crew members

All of the 20 Filipino crew members on board the Philippine-flagged merchant ship that collided with a US Navy destroyer in off Yokosuka are safe, but have been ordered to remain onboard for interviews by Japanese probers, the Department of Foreign Affairs said on Sunday.

“Further to our earlier statement, the PHL Embassy in Tokyo has been advised by Japanese authorities that there are no Filipino casualties so far from the collision that happened at 2:30 a.m. today about 56 nautical miles southwest of Yokosuka, Japan,” said the DFA’s updated statement.

The ACX Crystal, a Philippine-flagged vessel, was being manned by 20 Filipino crew including the Captain. They are safe. The ship itself was slightly damaged from the incident, added DFA.

“The ship is being ported back to Tokyo Bay and all crew have been instructed to remain onboard pending their interview by Japanese authorities later today,” added the DFA in Manila.

The Philippine Embassy in Tokyo, said DFA, will continue to coordinate with Japanese authorities. “A team has been dispatched to meet the ship upon arrival and to extend the necessary assistance to the Filipino seamen,” said DFA.

US ship captain among injured

Three people were medically evacuated to the US Naval Hospital in Yokosuka after the collision, including the ship’s commanding officer, Commander Bryce Benson, who was reported to be in stable condition, the Navy said.

The other two were being treated for lacerations and bruises, and others injured were being assessed aboard the ship.

The USS Fitzgerald sailed into port on Saturday evening but search and rescue efforts by US and Japanese aircraft and surface vessels had been continuing for the seven missing sailors, the Navy said.

Benson took command of the Fitzgerald on May 13. He had previously commanded a minesweeper based in Sasebo in western Japan.

It was unclear how the collision happened. “Once an investigation is complete then any legal issues can be addressed,” a spokesman for the U.S. 7th Fleet said.

Japanese probers eye ‘negligence’

Japanese authorities were looking into the possibility of “endangerment of traffic caused by professional negligence”, Japanese media reported, but it was not clear whether that might apply to either or both of the vessels.

The US Navy said the collision happened at about 2:30 a.m. local time (1730 GMT Friday), while the Japanese Coast Guard said it took place at 1:30 a.m. local time.

Rescue crews had searched into the early hours on Sunday for the seven American sailors missing after the collision.

US 7th Fleet Vice Admiral Joseph P. Aucoin said the search was continuing in a statement released nearly 24 hours after the Fitzgerald, collided with the much larger Philippine-flagged merchant vessel 56 nautical miles southwest of Yokosuka.

“It’s been a tough day for our Navy family. It’s hard to imagine what this crew has had to endure, the challenges they’ve had to overcome,” Aucoin said.

US and Japanese aircraft and surface vessels continued the search after the Fitzgerald sailed into the port of Yokosuka south of Tokyo. Three aboard the destroyer were treated at the US Naval Hospital, including ship Commander Bryce Benson.

It was not clear what caused the collision, which the US Navy said occurred at about 2:30 a.m. local time (1730 GMT).

“Thoughts and prayers with the sailors of USS Fitzgerald and their families. Thank you to our Japanese allies for their assistance,” U.S. President Donald Trump said in a Twitter post on Saturday.

The Fitzgerald suffered damage on her starboard side above and below the waterline, the Navy said.

Japan’s Nippon Yusen KK, which charters the container ship, ASX Crystal, said in a statement it would “cooperate fully” with the Coast Guard’s investigation of the incident. At around 29,000 tons displacement, the ship dwarfs the 8,315-ton US warship, and 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 in the day.

The waterways approaching Tokyo Bay are busy with commercial vessels sailing to and from Japan’s two biggest container ports in Tokyo and Yokohama.