Photo shows the damage to the guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald after it collided with the Philippine-flagged ACX Crystal container ship (top inset) off the coast of Japan yesterday.  AFP

US warship collision: 7 Navy sailors missing
Janvic Mateo (The Philippine Star) - June 17, 2017 - 4:00pm

MANILA, Philippines - Seven sailors are missing and three were injured after a US Navy destroyer collided early yesterday morning with a Philippine-flagged container ship south of Tokyo Bay in Japan.

The Japanese Coast Guard said the destroyer experienced some flooding but was not in danger of sinking, while the merchant vessel was able to sail under its own power.

The Navy ship later sailed back to its base in Yokosuka.

The accident happened 56 nautical miles (104 kilometers) southwest of the base, the US Navy said.

In Manila, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said it is closely monitoring reports of the collision between USS Fitzgerald and ACX Crystal at around 1:30 a.m. (Manila time).

“We are coordinating with the relevant authorities, including the governments of the US and Japan, to determine exactly the extent of damage and the number of casualties, especially if any Filipino nationals were involved,” the DFA said.

No casualty or injury from the Philippine vessel was reported as of yesterday afternoon.

“The ship itself was slightly damaged from the incident. The ship is being ported back to Tokyo Bay and all crew have been instructed to remain on board pending their interview by Japanese authorities,” the DFA said, referring to ACX Crystal.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and colleagues of the injured and missing US personnel,” it said.

The Philippine embassy in Tokyo “is closely monitoring the situation in coordination with Japanese and US authorities,” presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said in an interview with state-run Radyo Pilipinas.

The US Navy said in a statement the USS Fitzgerald, an Aegis guided missile destroyer, collided with a merchant vessel at about 2:30 a.m. local time (1730 GMT), some 56 nautical miles southwest of Yokosuka, a rare incident on a busy waterway.

Three aboard the destroyer had been medically evacuated, including the ship’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, who was reportedly in stable condition after being airlifted to the US Naval Hospital on the Yokosuka base, the Navy said.

The other two injured were transferred to the hospital to treat lacerations and bruises, it said.

The Fitzgerald, the Japanese Coast Guard and Maritime Self-Defense Forces were searching for the seven missing sailors.

Benson took command of the Fitzgerald on May 13. He had previously commanded a minesweeper based in Sasebo in western Japan.

Unclear

It was unclear how the collision happened. “Once an investigation is complete then any legal issues can be addressed,” the 7th Fleet spokesman said.

“The USS Fitzgerald suffered damage on her starboard side above and below the waterline,” the Navy said in a statement.

The full extent of damage to the ship and injuries to its crew were still being determined, it said, adding that the Fitzgerald was operating under its own power, “although her propulsion is limited.”

The ship, part of an eight-ship squadron based in Yokosuka, had in February completed $21 million worth of upgrades and repairs.

A spokesman for the US 7th Fleet said the ship was heading back to Yokosuka under its own power at three knots.

Japan’s Nippon Yusen KK, which charters the container ship ACX Crystal, said in a statement it would “cooperate fully” with the Coast Guard’s investigation of the incident.

At around 29,000 tons displacement, the ship is about three times the size of the US warship, and was carrying 1,080 containers from the port of Nagoya to Tokyo.

None of the 20 Filipino crewmembers were injured, and the ship was not leaking oil, Nippon Yusen said.

The US and Japan were conducting a major search operation yesterday to find seven missing American sailors.

Planes, boats and helicopters scoured the seas off Japan’s Pacific coast in a bid to find the crew who disappeared in the predawn accident, which also left the USS Fitzgerald’s skipper injured.

It was not clear where the missing sailors were when the collision happened. “Search and rescue efforts continue by US and Japanese aircraft and surface vessels in the hopes of recovering the seven USS Fitzgerald (crew) still unaccounted for,” the Navy said yesterday evening.

Busy waterways

The waterways approaching Tokyo Bay are busy with commercial vessels sailing to and from Japan’s two biggest container ports in Tokyo and Yokohama.

International maritime rules for collision avoidance do not define right of way for any one vessel, but provide common standards for signaling between ships, as well as regulations on posting lookouts.

“The volume of ships is heavy in this area and there have been accidents before,” coast guard official Yutaka Saito told Japan’s public broadcaster NHK.

NHK said the massive 222-meter container vessel made a sharp turn around the time of the crash with the smaller, 154-meter US warship, but its captain suggested otherwise.

“(We) were sailing in the same direction as the US destroyer was and then collided,” he was quoted as saying by Jiji Press news agency.

Japan’s coast guard, which is probing the incident, said it has sent a half dozen vessels, several aircraft and a team of specially trained rescue personnel to the scene. They were later joined by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.

“We’re going all out in the search to find these missing people... but we still haven’t found any clues as to where they might be,” a coast guard spokesman said.

The destroyer was commissioned in 1995 and deployed in the Iraq war in 2003.

“My daughter is on the Fitzgerald,” a parent wrote on the 7th Fleet’s Facebook page.

“So worried. Just need to hear she is OK. Thinking of all of our sailors and their families!!”

The US Navy said the crash caused “significant damage” and flooding in two berthing spaces, a machinery space and the ship’s radio room.

The ACX Crystal appeared to have relatively minor frontal damage.

The container vessel left the central Japanese city of Nagoya on Friday and had been due to arrive in the capital yesterday.

“We can’t comment on the accident as it’s being handled by the Japanese coast guard,” a company spokesman told AFP. “We will fully cooperate with authorities investigating the case.”

The USS Dewey and two Navy tugboats had been dispatched to provide assistance to the damaged destroyer, the Navy said.

Japan’s NHK showed aerial footage of the ship, which had a large dent in its right, or starboard, side. Images broadcast by NHK showed it had been struck next to its Aegis radar arrays behind its vertical launch tubes.

The images showed what appeared to be significant damage on the deck and to part of the radar.

NHK also showed footage of the container vessel and said it was heading towards Tokyo under its own power.

Such incidents are rare.

In May, the US Navy’s USS Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing vessel but both ships were able to operate under their own power.

The 7th Fleet commander, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, thanked the Japanese coast guard in a post on the fleet’s Facebook page, adding: “We are committed to ensuring the safe return of the ship to port in Yokosuka.” – With Alexis Romero, Reuters, AFP

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