TOKYO, Japan - A day after one of the world’s most advanced warships, the American naval destroyer, USS Fitzgerald was rammed by a container ship four times its size off the Japanese coast, the Navy revealed on Sunday that bodies of several missing American sailors were found.
The statement by the Navy, which was posted on Twitter revealed that the bodies of the U.S. Navy crew were found in the flooded berthing compartments of the damaged vessel.
However, it did now reveal how many of the seven missing sailors were found, or if any of them were found alive.
Addressing a news conference on Sunday, Vice Adm. Joseph P. Aucoin, commander of the United States 7th Fleet, said that the search and rescue mission had ended, but added that no further information about the missing sailors would be released until the process of notifying families had been completed.
Aucoin further said, “The collision with the 29,000-ton merchant vessel tore a big gash underneath the water line and the crew had to fight to keep the vessel from foundering or sinking. It's a large gash near the keel of the ship, so the water flow was tremendous. They had to fight the ship to keep it above the surface. So it was traumatic. I can't tell you how proud I am of the crew for what they did to save the ship.”
He said he did not know the exact circumstances before the collision but said he would launch an investigation, and that there will also be a safety investigation and other probes into what occurred.
The Navy said that search crews had to work their way through the extensive damage to Fitzgerald’s starboard side before they found the sailors and they were taken to a naval hospital in Yokosuka, Japan.
The Japanese coast guard said that the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, with a crew of approximately 330 sailors collided with the Philippines-registered cargo ship, the ACX Crystal, at about 02:30 local time on Saturday (18:30 BST Friday) in the Pacific Ocean, about 56 nautical miles (104km) south-west of Yokosuka and 12 miles off the Izu Peninsula.
The collision occurred at a time when most of the crew of the Fitzgerald would have been asleep and post the accident, the ship was escorted back to its base, in Yokosuka, Japan, where the search took place.
The Fitzgerald’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, who took command of the vessel on May 13, along with two other crew members were injured but conscious.
An official with the Japanese Coast Guard, which is aiding the rescue effort, said one of the injured sailors sustained a head injury and was unable to walk.
The Japanese Coast Guard said the shipping lane where the collision occurred is a congested one, known for heavy maritime traffic with 400 vessels passing through each day.
Masayuki Obara, a Coast Guard official revealed that the shipping lane has also been the site of numerous past accidents, with three major accidents being reported in the area in the last five years, including at least one fatality.
According to Obara, the Coast Guard was now interviewing the crew of the Crystal to determine, among other things, whether negligent piloting by either side contributed to the collision.
Crystal had meanwhile left the Japanese port of Nagoya on Friday evening and was expected to dock at a Tokyo Bay port around 4:30 p.m. local time when the collision occurred.
Officials said the container ship was operating under charter to a Japanese shipping company and sustained lighter damage to the port bow.
However, Nippon Yusen K.K., the Japanese shipping company that operates the container ship, confirmed that all of the 20-member Filipino crew were safe.
The Fitzgerald was about 64 miles south of Yokosuka when the Crystal rammed nose-first into the destroyer’s starboard, or right, side.
Meanwhile, the Navy said that the collision inflicted significant damage to the destroyer above and below the water line, flooding berths, a machinery area and the radio room.
So far, the cause of the collision is unclear and experts pointed out that under international maritime rules, a vessel is supposed to give way to another one on its starboard side - pointing out that the damage indicates that the Crystal was to Fitzgerald’s starboard, and therefore had the right of way.
Marjorie Murtagh Cooke, a former director of the National Transportation Safety Board’s Office of marine safety has stated that it could take a year or more to determine what happened.
Cooke explained, “We don’t know what information was available to each of these vessels at the time. Was all of their equipment working? Was one vessel at anchor and the other moving? There are just so many facts that we don’t have yet.”
Maritime experts have, however, cautioned that many other factors could have led to a crash.
According to reports, marine traffic records showed the Crystal made a series of sharp turns about 25 minutes before the collision, which in crowded seas could cause a cascade of manoeuvres by other vessels.
Bill Doherty, a ship safety investigator and auditor with a long career of service on naval warships was quoted as saying, “Those are very high-traffic-density areas near coastal waters. When a big ship like that makes a drastic change in a high traffic area, that has to be explained.”
Meanwhile, Sean P. Tortora, a veteran merchant marine captain and consultant who said he had sailed through the area of the collision many times, said that evidence suggested the Fitzgerald was at fault.
Describing the collision as a “T-bone,” in which the bow of the Crystal hit the starboard side of the Fitzgerald, Captain Tortora said, “From what I’ve seen, the Fitzgerald should have given way and passed to the stern of the container ship.”
He added that a common cause of collisions, at sea or on the simulators used for training, is a misjudgement of distance and speed on the part of a captain trying to cross in front of another vessel - adding, “They think they can make it and they make a run for it.”
Doherty also pointed out that one or both vessels were acting “in extremis,” or ahead of what appears to be an imminent collision. Adding, “At that point, both vessels are burdened, and then both vessels, by law, are required to immediately take the best action to aid to avert a collision.”
Meanwhile, Navy spokesman, Capt. Charles W. Brown has maintained that it was premature to address the cause of the collision.
He said, “At this point, our foremost concern is the search for the missing sailors and the well-being of the crew.”
Late on Saturday, commenting on the crash, U.S. President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter, “Thoughts and prayers with the sailors of USS Fitzgerald and their families. Thank you to our Japanese allies for their assistance.”