Missing US sailors found dead in ship damaged off Japan

The navy said it had found “a number” of bodies inside the guided missile destroyer, but did not specify if all seven crew had been found dead in the search that took place after it limped back into harbour.

The damaged USS Fitzgerald at the US naval base in Yokosuka, south-west of Tokyo. Eugene Hoshiko / AP Photo
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YOKOSUKA, JAPAN // The bodies of US sailors missing after their destroyer collided with a container ship off Japan were found in flooded sleeping berths on Sunday, a day after the accident tore a huge gash in the warship’s side.

Seven sailors were reported missing after Saturday’s predawn collision between the US navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald and a container ship, triggering a major search operation off Japan’s Pacific coast. US authorities tacitly acknowledged there were no survivors.

“The search and rescue is over,” US 7th Fleet commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin said, 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 seven crew had been found dead in the search that took place after it limped back into harbour.

A final toll would not be released until the sailors’ families had been contacted, the navy said. Japanese media said all seven of the sailors who had been reported missing were found dead.

Adm 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 can be salvaged but would likely take months to fix, Adm Aucoin said.

The container ship, the 222-metre 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.

The Fitzgerald, an Aegis guided missile destroyer, collided with the Philippine-flagged merchant vessel, more than three times its size, 56 nautical miles south-west of Yokosuka early on Saturday.

Three sailors were sent 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 US navy said.

The other two were being treated for lacerations and bruises. Others injured were being assessed aboard the ship.

Adm 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 on 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 on Sunday.

The 154-metre 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.

On Sunday, the navy said the dead US crew were found by the divers.

* Agence France-Presse and Reuters