Malaysia, Indonesia send vessels and helicopters to search for 10 missing US sailors

Director General Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) Zulkifili Abu Bakar addresses members of the media at the Malaysian Maritime Headquarters in Putrajaya on Aug 21, 2017.
Director General Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) Zulkifili Abu Bakar addresses members of the media at the Malaysian Maritime Headquarters in Putrajaya on Aug 21, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

PUTRAJAYA - Malaysia and Indonesia have joined the search for the 10 missing sailors from the USS John S. McCain warship, which collided with an oil tanker off Singapore early Monday (Aug 21) morning.

Malaysia's coast guard, claiming that the collision took place in Malaysian waters, said it was searching across 260 sq km for the sailors. In Jakarta, foreign minister Retno Marsudi said Indonesia had also joined the search and rescue operation to find the missing crew, media reports said. 

Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) Director General Admiral Datuk Zulkifli Abu Bakar told a press conference that it was leading the search and rescue in Malaysian waters, as the collision occurred 4.5 nautical miles off Teluk Ramunia on the eastern coast of Johor.

The Maritime Admiral said both ships were sailing from the South China Sea towards Singapore and the incident happened at "the entrance to the Singapore Straits and Malacca Straits, which sees over 80,000 ships passing through yearly". 

The busy waterway operates under a traffic separation scheme where vessels are coordinated into designated lanes, very much like a road highway, he explained.

He said the sailors faced a "very challenging" time if they did not have life jackets as "the waves are from 0.5 to 1.5 metres and I consider that quite rough".

The agency launched a search and rescue operation at 8.45am, after being notified of the accident by the Royal Malaysian Navy's KD Handalan at 8am. The navy said KD Handalan received a distress signal from the USS John S McCain at 7.25am.
The MMEA immediately sent four vessels, KM Mulia, KM Marudu, Petir 12 and Penggalang 39 to initiate the SAR and also deployed an AW139 helicopter at 11.30am.
The operation includes KD Handalan, and three vessels from the marine police and the Marine Department. The Malaysian assets are spread across four sectors each measuring 8x8 kilometres.

Malaysia's Armed Forces is adding two more navy ships, three aircraft and a team of divers, while an MMEA Bombardier will join the air search.
Mr Zulkifli refused to speculate on the cause of the collision but said investigations will be carried out by the Marine Department.

Singapore's Maritime and Port Authority had said earlier in a statement that the collision happened in Singapore territorial waters in the Singapore Strait but Mr Zulkifli said he believed Singapore's assets were in Malaysian waters.

"Please understand that as far as we are concerned, it is in our waters, so they have to communicate with us. If they want to assist in the search and rescue operation, they are welcome," he said.

However, he told reporters: "I don't think we should argue about whose waters. We should focus on the search and rescue operation."

The US Navy said Singapore and US assets were involved in search and rescue. It said in a statement late on Monday that Malaysian navy vessels and a helicopter had joined the search in the afternoon and Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, thanked Malaysia for its “great support”.

Meanwhile in Indonesia, Ms Retno was reported as saying three Indonesian Navy ships and several helicopters had been sent to the waters where the collision took place.

“So far, it’s confirmed that there is no oil spill in the region, so the search attempt will focus on finding the missing crew,” Ms Retno was quoted by as saying.