MSDF destroyer cuts fishing trawler in half

Search on near Chiba for missing father, son

by Kaho Shimizu and Reiji Yoshida

A Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer cut a small trawler in two before dawn Tuesday in the Pacific about 40 km off Chiba Prefecture, and the boat’s father-and-son crew were missing.

The two fishermen are believed to be Haruo Kichisei, 58, and his 23-year-old son, Tetsuhiro, both from Katsuura, Chiba Prefecture, according to the Japan Coast Guard’s 3rd Regional Headquarters in Yokohama.

Vessels and aircraft from the MSDF and Japan Coast Guard searched for the fishermen but had not found them as of late Tuesday.

According to the MSDF, the 166-meter-long, 7,700-ton destroyer Atago, equipped with the advanced Aegis defense system, was on its way back from Hawaii when it struck the 12-meter Seitoku Maru, apparently broadside, at 4:07 a.m.

After being alerted by the Atago at 4:23 a.m., the coast guard immediately dispatched rescue teams, including five patrol boats, three aircraft and a special four-member diving team. The MSDF sent six warships, six smaller vessels, four helicopters and an airplane to join the search.

The divers searched the fore and aft sections of the fishing boat that remained afloat, but to no avail, coast guard officials said.

The Atago departed Hawaii on Feb. 7 after completing tests of its Standard Missile-2 interceptors and was scheduled to reach the MSDF base at Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, at 9 a.m. Tuesday, said Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of the Maritime Staff Office’s Operations and Plans Department.

Kawano described the weather at the time of the accident as calm with good visibility and half-meter waves. The water temperature was around 18 degrees, he said.

Adm. Eiji Yoshikawa, the top MSDF commander, said the Atago tried to avoid the collision, indicating the destroyer had spotted the trawler.

Yoshikawa said the Atago’s radar system was functioning properly, but he was not certain whether it had detected the fishing boat. He said the MSDF would await further investigation to confirm what actions the Atago took.

It was the first serious accident involving an MSDF vessel since the submarine Nadashio collided in broad daylight in Tokyo Bay with a charter fishing boat in July 1988, killing 30 people and injuring 17.

The coast guard — the investigative authority over accidents and crimes at sea — will question the destroyer’s skipper, Capt. Ken Funato, 52, a coast guard officer in Yokohama said, adding that a criminal investigation will also be launched to determine if professional negligence occurred.

In the evening, the Yokosuka Coast Guard Office searched the Atago after obtaining a warrant from the Yokohama District Court. The search was conducted in Yokosuka, where the ship was asked to anchor.

Shigeo Akimoto, head of the Guard and Rescue Department of the 3rd Regional Headquarters, told a news conference the coast guard would confiscate any relevant evidence from the Aegis destroyer, and that the government’s designation of defense secrets would likely not pose any hindrance to the investigation.

Items that can be seized include logbooks, private memos and any other records showing the condition of the vessel, he said.

Akimoto declined to comment on the cause of the accident or who would be held responsible, only saying the investigation was still under way.

According to Akimoto, a fishing vessel that helped in the search retrieved a gray jacket from the sea that a relative of the men confirmed belongs to Haruo Kichisei. The sun set at around 5 p.m., but the coast guard and the MSDF planned to continue the search for the missing men throughout the night.

The coast guard attached flotation devices and lights to the two remaining parts of the fishing boat to keep them afloat and make it easier for vessels to search the area in the dark.

In the evening, MSDF ships were towing the parts to Tateyama port on the Boso Peninsula to examine them and determine the cause of the accident.

A fisheries’ association in Katsuura said fishing boats often ply the area where the collision occurred, heading to and from long-line tuna and spearfish grounds around Hachijojima.

“It is regrettable that this happened,” Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba told reporters. “We will do everything we can to find the people who were on board and will conduct an investigation to determine the cause as quickly as possible.”

Ishiba said he will order the MSDF to improve its reporting system because it took more than 90 minutes before the first report of the accident reached him. He said he was especially upset that the Defense Ministry’s Internal Bureau took about 40 minutes before reporting the collision to him.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said the slow response raised questions about the ministry’s crisis-management system.

The government established an information liaison office at the prime minister’s office, while a similar office was also set up within the Defense Ministry.

The Atago was commissioned last March as the newest Aegis destroyer.