YOKOSUKA • The bodies of missing sailors were found in flooded compartments of the USS Fitzgerald, which came close to sinking after a collision with a container ship off Japan tore a gash under the warship's waterline, the US Navy said.
Seven sailors were reported missing after last Saturday's pre-dawn collision, triggering a major search operation off Japan's Pacific coast. The US authorities tacitly acknowledged there were no survivors.
"The search and rescue is over," US Seventh Fleet commander Joseph Aucoin told reporters, describing huge amounts of water that gushed into the sleeping compartments after part of the ship's right side caved in.
The navy said it had found "a number" of bodies inside the guided missile destroyer, but did not specify if all seven crew members had been found dead in the search that took place after the vessel limped back into harbour.
Vice-Admiral Aucoin said the final toll was not being released "out of respect for their families".
He said the USS Fitzgerald could have foundered, or even sunk, but for the crew's desperate efforts to save the ship.
"The damage was significant. There was a big gash under the water," he added.
"A significant portion of the crew were sleeping" when the destroyer collided with the Philippine-flagged container ship, destroying the commander's cabin, he said.
The USS Fitzgerald is salvageable, Vice-Admiral Aucoin said, but repairs will likely take months, "hopefully less than a year".
Asked if damage on the starboard side indicated the US ship could have been at fault, he declined to speculate on the cause of the collision. Maritime rules suggest that vessels are supposed to give way to ships on their starboard.
Japanese media said all seven of the sailors who had been reported missing were found dead.
The US Seventh Fleet said in a statement yesterday: "Divers were able to access the space and found a number of bodies."
They were transferred to a US naval hospital for identification, it said. "The families are being notified and being provided the support they need during this difficult time," it added.
The USS Fitzgerald collided with the merchant vessel, which is more than three times its size, some 56 nautical miles south-west of Yokosuka early last Saturday.
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.
The USS Fitzgerald, which had 285 crew on board, sailed into port last Saturday evening, listing at around 5 degrees, a US Navy spokesman said. The flooding was in two berthing compartments, the radio room and auxiliary machine room, he added.
It was unclear how the collision happened. "Once an investigation is complete, then any legal issues can be addressed," a spokesman for the US Seventh Fleet said.
The Japanese authorities are 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.
Japan's Nippon Yusen KK, which charters the container ship, ACX Crystal, said in a statement last Saturday that 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. The merchant vessel was carrying 1,080 containers from Nagoya to Tokyo.
None of the 20 crew members aboard the container ship, all Filipinos, were injured, and the ship was not leaking oil, Nippon Yusen said. The ship arrived at Tokyo Bay later last Saturday.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE