The U.S. has called off its search for seven missing sailors after finding bodies in the sleeping compartments of the USS Fitzgerald, the Navy destroyer that collided with a massive merchant vessel off the coast of Japan early Saturday.
“The search and rescue is over,” US 7th Fleet commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin told reporters Sunday. U.S. authorities tacitly acknowledged there were no survivors, although Aucoin declined to say how many bodies had been recovered until relatives of the dead sailors are notified.
Aucoin said that sea water gushed into sleeping compartments and that part of the ship’s right side was caved in.
“The damage was significant. There was a big gash under the water,” Aucoin said at the Yokosuka naval base, home of the U.S. 7th Fleet. He spoke with the docked Fitzgerald behind him, after tugboats towed it ashore in the hours after the collision 104 kilometers southwest of Yokosuka, in a busy shipping channel.
He said “a significant portion of the crew was sleeping” when the destroyer collided with a Philippine-flagged container ship, the ACX Crystal. Aucoin said the Fitzgerald is salvageable but that repairs will likely take months.
“Hopefully less than a year,” Aucoin said. “You will see the USS Fitzgerald back.”
There was no immediate explanation for the collision.
Aucoin said, “I’m not going to speculate on what happened…. Hopefully we’ll get those answers, but I don’t have them right now.”
Three other U.S. crew members were injured in the accident, including the vessel’s commanding officer, Bryce Benson, with all of them undergoing treatment. Aucoin said, without elaborating, that Benson “is lucky to be alive.”
Benson was in stable condition with a head injury. The two other sailors suffered cuts and bruises.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a sympathy message to U.S. President Donald Trump, saying, “We are struck by deep sorrow. I express my heartfelt solidarity to America at this difficult time.”
On Saturday, Trump said in a Twitter message, “Thoughts and prayers with the sailors of USS Fitzgerald and their families. Thank you to our Japanese allies for their assistance.”
The ACX Crystal sailed into Tokyo Saturday afternoon with minor damage to its bow. None of the 20-member crew on the Philippine-flagged container ship was reported injured.
Aucoin said the Navy will launch an investigation into the collision because “we owe it to our families and the Navy to understand what happened.”
“Unfortunately, we don’t have the details regarding the conditions during the final moments, but hope that the investigation may shed some light on that matter,” Aucoin said.
The Fitzgerald and the ACX Crystal — a ship nearly four times the size of the destroyer — collided early Saturday. The 29,000-ton Philippine ship is 222 meters long, while the 8,315-ton Navy destroyer is 154 meters long.
The U.S. Navy said the collision occurred about midship on the starboard side, damaging two sailor berthing stations, a machinery room and a radio room.
“This was a severe emergency, but the ship’s crew was swift and responsive and I can’t tell you how proud I am of the crew for what they did to save the ship,” Aucoin said.
According to Jiji Press news agency, the ACX Crystal captain said his ship was “sailing in the same direction as the U.S. destroyer and then collided.”
Such collisions between two ships are rare.
Yukata Saito of the Japanese coast guard said conditions were clear at the time of the collision.
“The volume of ships is heavy in this area and there have been accidents before,” Saito told Japan’s public broadcaster NHK.