Japan Coast Guard says collision between U.S. warship and freighter wasn’t reported for 55 minutes

AP, Kyodo, Staff Report

The Japan Coast Guard is investigating why it took nearly an hour for a deadly collision between a U.S. Navy destroyer and a containership to be reported.

A Coast Guard official said Monday they are trying to find out what the crew of the Philippine-flagged ACX Crystal was doing before reporting the collision to authorities 55 minutes later.

The Coast Guard initially said the collision occurred at 2:20 a.m. Saturday because the Philippine ship had reported it at 2:25 a.m. and said it just happened. After interviewing Filipino crew members, the Coast Guard changed the collision time to 1:30 a.m.

The ACX Crystal collided with the USS Fitzgerald off the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture, killing seven of the destroyer’s crew of nearly 300.

A record of the containership’s route by MarineTraffic, a vessel-tracking service, shows it made a sudden turn as if trying to avoid something at about 1:30 a.m., before continuing eastward. It then made a U-turn and returned to the area near the collision at around 2:20 a.m.

Coast Guard official Tetsuya Tanaka said they were trying to resolve what happened during the 50 minutes.

He said officials are planning to get hold of a device with communications records to examine further details of the crash. The Japan Transport Safety Board also started an accident investigation Monday.

Adding to the confusion, a U.S. Navy official said it is sticking with the 2:20 a.m. timing for the crash that he said had been reported by the Fitzgerald.

Asked about the earlier time cited by the coast guard, navy spokesman Cmdr. Ron Flanders said, “That is not our understanding.” He said any differences would have to be clarified in the investigation.

Nanami Meguro, a spokeswoman for NYK Line, the ship’s operator, agreed with the earlier timing.
Meguro said the ship was “operating as usual” until the collision at 1:30 a.m., as shown on a ship tracking service that the company uses. She said the ship reported to the coast guard at 2:25 a.m., but she could not provide details about what the ship was doing for nearly an hour.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference that the central government will continue to look into the incident, “continuously enlisting U.S. cooperation.”

Japan and the United States have been in talks on details about the post-accident investigation, officials said. Japan has the right to probe the accident because it occurred within the country’s waters, while the U.S. has the primary right to exercise jurisdiction under the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement.

Suga also said Japan will work with the United States and South Korea as well as other countries to make sure the accident involving the Yokosuka-based warship won’t compromise deterrence against potential threats in the region, such as from North Korea.

The U.S. Navy said Monday it had confirmed dead all seven crew members of its Aegis destroyer Fitzgerald who were listed as missing following the collision.

The sailors were aged 19 to 37, it said.

The accident between the 8,315-ton naval ship and the 29,060-ton cargo vessel occurred in a crowded area where experts on maritime safety and people in the shipping industry say ships sometimes have little room for the maneuvers necessary to avoid incidents.

It is often referred to as a “chokepoint” by maritime operators.

“It is just like a lot of vehicles are running on a road which has no center line,” said an official and representative of the sea shipping industry, explaining the congestion surrounding the area of the accident some 20 km southeast of Cape Irozaki on the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture.

“The sea currents are fast and the direction and speed of winds can often change (there). That requires the operator to adjust the way the ship is maneuvered depending on the situation,” the official said. “Skippers cannot be too careful in the area, even if they are accustomed to traveling there.”

According to the 3rd Regional Coast Guard Headquarters in Yokohama, each day some 400 vessels go through the area and there are a lot of accidents there.

Three collisions between large ships have been reported in the past five years. Six crew members on a Japanese cargo ship were killed in a collision near the peninsula with a Sierra Leone-flagged freighter in September 2013.

The Japan Captains’ Association, which mainly consists of skippers of commercial ships, calls on ships running near the cape to voluntarily keep to the right — westbound ships sailing close to the peninsula and eastbound vessels keeping far away from it.

But unlike roads, there are no fixed lanes in most parts of the sea near the peninsula. “Large ships going east change course near Cape Irozaki to avoid reefs in many cases,” the sea shipping industry official said.

Yoshihiko Yamada, an expert on maritime safety, estimated the Filipino cargo ship may have been moving as fast as 37 kph before the collision, and caused an enormous impact in the incident.

Yamada, a professor at Tokai University, said the inspection and investigation will focus mainly on whether the two vessels were able to communicate when they found themselves on a collision course, and the degree of crowding in the area at the time.

Large ships such as destroyers keep watch round the clock, using both radar and lookouts. “It was impossible that the Aegis ship (Fitzgerald) was unaware” another vessel was approaching, Yamada said.

“The U.S. ship must have issued large-scale warnings” to avoid an accident, he said, noting that investigators should look into whether circumstances allowed the naval ship to change its course.

A tally by the Japan Transport Safety Board suggests that a collision is sometimes inevitable even if the ships involved are aware of the danger. A survey by the board indicated that out of 243 collision incidents in which the causes have been determined, one ship was aware the other was approaching in 156 cases.

Some skippers polled in the survey said they were unable to change course quickly enough as there were other ships nearby.

“It is possible the ships (involved in Saturday’s collision) had little room for significant maneuvers as there may have possibly been other ships such as fishing boats” in the immediate vicinity, Yamada said.