Seven sailors missing, three injured after U.S. Navy destroyer and cargo vessel collide off Kanagawa

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

A U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer collided with a Philippine-flagged cargo ship off the coast of Japan early Saturday, with at least three members of the destroyer’s crew — including its commander — requiring medical evacuation and leaving seven sailors missing.

The cause of the collision, which occurred 56 nautical miles (103 km) southwest of Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, remained unclear.

The damaged USS Fitzgerald limped home to its Yokosuka home port around 6 p.m., where it would be further inspected, according to the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet. Search and rescue efforts by U.S. vessels and aircraft, as well as ships from the Japan Coast Guard and Maritime Self-Defense Force, continued the hunt for the seven missing sailors. Their names are being withheld until the families have been notified.

The MSDF ships Ohnami, Hamagiri and Enshu joined coast guard vessels Izanami and Kano and the USS Dewey as part of the search and rescue operations, the 7th Fleet said. A U.S. P-8 Poseidon aircraft was also working in concert with two MSDF Helicopters and an MSDF P-3 Orion aircraft to search the area.

The 7th Fleet said earlier that the coast guard had conducted a medevac for one U.S. crew member: Cmdr. Bryce Benson, the Fitzgerald’s commanding officer, who was transferred to U.S. Naval Hospital Yokosuka and reportedly was in stable condition. Two other sailors were also transported by the U.S. side to the Yokosuka hospital for bruises and lacerations.

According to the 7th Fleet, the destroyer had the collision at about 2:30 a.m. with the ACX Crystal, a Philippine-flagged cargo ship chartered by Japanese shipping giant NYK Line. The 29,060-ton displacement of the 222.6-meter (730-foot) containership meant it was over three times more massive than the 8,900-ton fully loaded Fitzgerald.

The extent of damage was still being determined, but the 7th Fleet said the vessel had suffered damage on her central starboard, or right, side above and below the waterline. The ship “had experienced flooding in some spaces” and had operated on its own power, although propulsion had been limited, all the way to Yokosuka.

Aerial pictures taken by public broadcaster NHK showed a large dent in the right side of the ship, next to its Aegis radar arrays and behind its vertical launch tubes.

The damage had prompted flooding to two berthing spaces, a machinery space and the radio room, the 7th Fleet said. It was unclear how long it would take to gain access to the spaces in order to continue the search for the missing, who may have been trapped there.

Divers were to inspect the damage and develop a plan for repairs and inspection of the flooded areas.

U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said on his official Facebook page that an information center had been set up, with counselors on scene. Phone numbers for concerned family members were also listed on the Facebook page of the Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Japan.

Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, thanked Tokyo for its aid, saying: “Right now we are focused on two things: the safety of the ship and the well-being of the Sailors. We thank our Japanese partners for their assistance.”

Nippon Yusen KK said in a statement on its website that it would “cooperate fully” with the coast guard’s investigation of the incident. None of the 20 crew members aboard the ACX Crystal, all Filipino, were injured, and the ship is not leaking oil, Nippon Yusen said.

The rare collision occurred southwest of Yokosuka, a busy commercial waterway for commercial vessels sailing to and from Japan’s two biggest container ports in Tokyo and Yokohama.

Bryan McGrath, a retired U.S. Navy commander who was the skipper of the USS Bulkeley, which like the Fitzgerald is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, called the incident “rare” and said the Fitzgerald appeared to have “significant damage.”

“Judging from the photos I’ve seen of the damage on both ships, I suspect there is damage below the waterline on Fitzgerald’s starboard side,” McGrath said, referring to the ship’s right side. “The container ship has a huge ‘bulbous bow’ that helps its hydrodynamics, and even in a glancing blow, it could have impacted Fitz. Holes/cracks in ships below the waterline are tough damage control problems.”

McGrath refused to speculate on the cause of the collision, but said that while both vessels likely employed advanced systems to help prevent collisions, human error remains a significant issue.

“Because the ocean is so big and ships are so large, a lot of people simply cannot understand how something like this happens,” he said. “The answer is that there are no perfect systems, and systems in which human beings play key roles are subject to human failures.”