YOKOSUKA, Japan — A U.S. Navy destroyer came close to sinking after a “traumatic” collision off the coast of Japan, the commander of the Seventh Fleet said Sunday, after the bodies of the missing sailors were found in the berthing compartments of the stricken vessel.
Vice Adm. Joseph P. Aucoin declined to say how many of the seven missing sailors had been recovered, but he said that the search and rescue mission was over. The families of those who died were still being informed on Sunday.
Multiple investigations are now underway to determine how a technologically advanced American warship was not able to get out of the way of the huge and cumbersome container ship, even if it had right of way.
“This was a severe emergency,” Aucoin said at the Yokosuka naval base, home of the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, Sunday afternoon. The damaged Aegis guided-missile destroyer was docked behind him, pumps continuing to bring water up out of the hull. “It was a significant impact to the side of the ship.”
Most of the damage occurred under the waterline in the form of a huge puncture to the hull near the ship’s keel, which led to a “tremendous” amount of water rushing into the berthing cabins and the radio control room, he said.
“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,” Aucoin, gesturing to the destroyer behind him. “They had to fight this ship to keep it above the surface. It was traumatic.”
The crew stopped the ship from foundering or sinking and got it back to port, he said. The destroyer is salvageable, but repairs probably will take months, Aucoin said.
The collision occurred at about 2:20 a.m. local time Saturday, about 50 miles south-west of the U.S. Navy base at Yokosuka. Marine tracking data showed the container ship, the Philippine-flagged Crystal, performed a U-turn in the busy shipping lane south of Tokyo shortly before the crash. The weather was clear with a swell of about six feet at the time.
The fully-loaded Crystal was nearly four times the size of the Fitzgerald, and photos from the scene showed scrapes to the port side of its bow.
However, the destroyer, nicknamed “The Fighting Fitz” within the Navy, suffered severe damage on its starboard side.
The impact struck berthing compartments that contained 116 sailors and completely destroyed the commanding officer’s cabin. Cmdr. Bryce Benson was the first to be evacuated from the damaged vessel and is being treated at the U.S. naval hospital at Yokosuka. He was awake but not yet able to answer questions.
“He’s lucky to be alive,” Aucoin said.
Two others were airlifted off the ship and treated in the hospital for lacerations and bruises. The remains of the missing sailors had also been taken to the hospital for identification.
Because of the hour, many sailors were sleeping when the collision happened, but the ship had a “full complement” of bridge crew on duty, Aucoin said. There was no indication of any problem with the navigational equipment, he said.
American and Japanese investigations are underway, but Aucoin said he would not speculate on how long they would take to get to the bottom of the accident.
Analysts said that such a collision was highly unusual.
“We just don’t expect a very capable warship to be so badly damaged in a normal, peacetime environment,” said Patrick Cronin, head of the Asia-Pacific program at the Center for a New American Security.
While there are extensive international guidelines to prevent collisions at sea, in some ways it didn’t matter who had right of way in this case, he said.
“In my mind, our destroyer is a more capable, agile ship so regardless of who has right-of-way, our ship should be able to take evasive action,” Cronin said.
Collisions at sea have become rare events in recent decades as navigational technology has improved.
The current case recalled the collision between the submarine USS Greeneville and a training ship belonging to a Japanese fishery high school in 2001 off the coast of Hawaii.
In that incident, the Greeneville suddenly surfaced underneath the Japanese ship, causing it to sink and claiming nine lives, four of them high school students.
“Things like this happens because of human error, sometimes complicated by some technical difficulty,” Cronin said, calling it “heroic” that the crew was able to get back to port. “U.S.-Japan cooperation has been fantastic,” he said.
Japanese coastguard and military ships assisted with the rescue, and Japanese planes and helicopters searched the waters before the bodies were found.
That shows how the alliance between the United States and Japan helps American interests, analysts said. In previous statements, President Trump had called the value of the alliance into question, complaining on the campaign trail that the United States was paying “billions” for the defense of Japan, a rich country.