US destroyer collides with cargo ship off Japan, 7 missing

The damaged bow of ACX Crystal, the Philippine-flagged cargo ship. There were no casualties among the 20 Philippine crew. The USS Fitzgerald as seen off the Shimoda coast yesterday. The sailors were thought to have been thrown into the sea, or trappe
The USS Fitzgerald as seen off the Shimoda coast yesterday. The sailors were thought to have been thrown into the sea, or trapped inside damaged sections of the destroyer, said a Japan Coast Guard spokesman. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
The damaged bow of ACX Crystal, the Philippine-flagged cargo ship. There were no casualties among the 20 Philippine crew. The USS Fitzgerald as seen off the Shimoda coast yesterday. The sailors were thought to have been thrown into the sea, or trappe
The damaged bow of ACX Crystal, the Philippine-flagged cargo ship. There were no casualties among the 20 Philippine crew.PHOTO: JAPAN COAST GUARD

Search on for missing US sailors; collision with big cargo carrier occurs in busy Japanese waterway

A search-and-rescue operation continued late into the night to locate seven missing United States Navy sailors, after an American warship collided with a Philippine-flagged cargo vessel thrice its size early yesterday.

The crash involving the USS Fitzgerald guided missile destroyer occurred in a busy waterway about 100km south-west from its home port of Yokosuka Naval Base, south of Tokyo.

The incident at about 2.30am local time (1.30am in Singapore) left at least three sailors injured, including the US ship's captain, Commander Bryce Benson, who suffered a head injury and was evacuated by helicopter. He was reported to be in stable condition in the hospital, while the other two were still having their injuries assessed.

There were no casualties among the 20 Philippine crew members on the merchant vessel ACX Crystal, which is run by Japanese shipping company Nippon Yusen.

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Japan Coast Guard spokesman Yoshihito Nakamura said rescuers were looking for the seven sailors, who were "thought to have been thrown into the sea, or possibly trapped inside damaged sections of the destroyer".

The collision caused damage to the ship's starboard (right) side above and below the water line, the US Navy said in a statement.

There was also "significant damage and associated flooding to two berthing spaces, a machinery space and the radio room", where damage control teams worked quickly to pump water out.

"While those efforts helped stabilise the flooding, it remains uncertain how long it will take to gain access to the spaces once the ship is pier side in Yokosuka," the US Navy added.

Although the ship had listed right, it was deemed not to be in danger of sinking and later made its own way back to the naval base, flanked by the USS Dewey destroyer and two tugboats.

The ACX Crystal escaped with dents and scrapes to the bow on its left, and did not appear to suffer major structural damage, according to news pictures.

"Thoughts and prayers with the sailors of USS Fitzgerald and their families. Thank you to our Japanese allies for their assistance," US President Donald Trump said in a tweet.

Both Japan and the US have deployed ships and aircraft to search for the missing sailors. Three ships from the Japanese Navy and two ships from the Japan Coast Guard are working with the USS Dewey.

The US P-8 Poseidon aircraft is working with two Japanese Navy helicopters and the P-3 Orion aircraft in an aerial search of the area.

More than 200 sailors were on the USS Fitzgerald at the time of the collision. Said Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the US Pacific Fleet: "Right now we are focused on two things - the safety of the ship and the well-being of the sailors."

  • Warship in area to monitor Korean peninsula

  • An Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, the USS Fitzgerald was named after US Navy officer William Charles Fitzgerald. It was commissioned in 1995 and based originally in San Diego, California.

    The USS Fitzgerald was deployed in a carrier strike group that helped with the war in Iraq in 2003, The Guardian newspaper reported.

    The 154m US warship has been based out of Yokosuka, south of Yokohama and Tokyo, since 2004 to counter global ballistic missile threats. It operates in the Pacific and the Sea of Japan, Agence France-Presse reported.

    In November 2011, the ship, while docked in Manila, served as the site where then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario signed the Manila Declaration calling for multilateral talks to resolve maritime disputes.

    The USS Fitzgerald was active in Japanese waters to monitor the Korean peninsula in the wake of a series of ballistic missile launches by North Korea, said The Guardian.

    It also took part in relief efforts after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and recently participated in military exercises with two American aircraft carriers and ships from the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force.

A probe into suspected professional negligence which endangered marine traffic is ongoing.

Nippon Yusen said in a statement on its website it is "fully cooperating" with the investigation.

Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported that the 222m ACX Crystal took a sharp right turn an hour before the collision, before making a U-turn back to its original course.

The ship, with a capacity of 29,060 tons, was travelling from Nagoya Port to Tokyo Port, and carrying 1,080 containers.

The ACX Crystal is much larger than the 154m USS Fitzgerald, which has a capacity of 8,315 tons and has been patrolling Japanese waters to monitor North Korea after the latter conducted a series of ballistic missile launches.

In February, US$21 million (S$29 million) in upgrades and repairs were completed for the USS Fitzgerald, which is part of an eight-ship US Navy squadron based in Yokosuka.

The Japanese Coast Guard said sea conditions at the time of the incident were clear. About 400 to 500 ships pass through the busy waterway every day, but collisions are said to be rare.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 18, 2017, with the headline 'US destroyer collides with ship, 7 missing'. Print Edition | Subscribe