YOKOSUKA, Japan (4th UPDATE) – The bodies of US sailors missing after their destroyer collided with a container ship off Japan have been found in flooded sleeping berths, a day after the accident tore a huge gash in the warship's side, the US Navy said Sunday, June 18.
Seven sailors were reported missing after Saturday's (June 17) predawn collision, triggering a major search operation off Japan's Pacific coast, and US authorities tacitly acknowledged there were no survivors.
"The search and rescue is over," US 7th Fleet commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin told reporters, describing huge amounts of water that gushed into the sleeping compartments after part of the ship's right side was caved in.
The Navy said it had found "a number" of bodies inside the guided missile destroyer, but did not specify if all 7 crew had been found dead in the search that took place after it limped back into harbor.
A final toll would not be released until the sailors' families had been contacted, the navy said.
However, Aucoin said the destroyer sustained "a large gash" below the waterline, and nearby crew would have had little chance to escape the "tremendous" amount of water that poured through the breach.
"It was 2:20 in the morning. A significant part of the crew was sleeping," he added, standing on the pier in front of the docked destroyer at its base in Yokosuka, southwest of Tokyo.
"There wasn't a lot of time in spaces that were open to the sea.
"So, it was traumatic. As to how much warning they had – I don't know."
The damaged ship was salvageable but would likely take months to fix, Aucoin said.
The container ship, the 222-meter Philippine-flagged ACX Crystal, came into port with large scrapes on its bow, but none of its 20 crew were injured, Japan's coastguard said.
'Lucky to be alive'
Aucoin declined to say what might be to blame for the accident, the cause of which is being investigated.
"We will update you once the investigation process is complete," he said.
"I'm not going to speculate on what happened... Hopefully we'll get those answers, but I don't have them right now."
The accident set off a major US-Japanese search and rescue operation Saturday.
"Our government expresses its heartfelt solidarity with the United States at this difficult time, and will spare no effort in supplying any and all assistance," Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in a statement on Sunday.
The 154-meter (500-foot) Fitzgerald – commissioned in 1995 and deployed in the Iraq war in 2003 – was pulled by a tugboat back to its base on Saturday, where divers searched damaged areas of the destroyer.
Earlier Sunday, the Navy said the dead US crew were found by the divers.
"As search and rescue crews gained access to the spaces that were damaged during the collision... the missing sailors were located in the flooded berthing compartments," it said.
"They are currently being transferred to Naval Hospital Yokosuka where they will be identified," it added.
Several other US crew members were injured in the accident and had to be evacuated by air to hospital, including the vessel's commanding officer Bryce Benson, who is "undergoing treatment", Aucoin said.
"He is lucky to be alive," the fleet commander added, without elaborating.
The accident happened 56 nautical miles (104 kilometers) southwest of Yokosuka, in a busy shipping channel that is a gateway to major container ports in Tokyo and nearby Yokohama.
There have been several collisions involving large vessels in the area over the past 5 years, Japan's Asahi newspaper said.
Japan's coastguard is conducting an investigation into the accident – including interviewing the container ship's Filipino crew – although the US has primary jurisdiction in probing accidents involving military personnel.
"Our deep thoughts and concerns go out to the families and friends of those who have so tragically lost their lives," the container ship's Japanese owner, NYK Line, said Sunday.
We "are fully cooperating with an investigation being conducted by the Japan Coast Guard." – Rappler.com