Tokyo: The U.S. Navy confirmed on Monday that all seven missing sailors on the USS Fitzgerald were found dead in flooded berthing compartments after the destroyer’s collision with a container ship off Japan over the weekend. The USS Fitzgerald and a Philippine-flagged container ship collided south of Tokyo Bay early on Saturday. The cause of the collision in clear weather is not known. A significant portion of the crew was asleep when the collision occurred, tearing a gash under the warship’s waterline and flooding two berthing compartments, the radio room and the auxiliary machine room.
A large dent was clearly visible in its right mid-section as the destroyer limped back to Yokosuka naval base south of Tokyo, home of the Seventh fleet, on Saturday evening.
The U.S. Navy on Monday identified the dead sailors as: Dakota Kyle Rigsby, 19, from Palmyra, Virginia; Shingo Alexander Douglass, 25, from San Diego, California; Ngoc T Truong Huynh, 25, from Oakville, Connecticut; Noe Hernandez, 26, from Weslaco, Texas; Carlos Victor Ganzon Sibayan, 23, from Chula Vista, California; Xavier Alec Martin, 24, from Halethorpe, Maryland; and Gary Leo Rehm Jr., 37, from Elyria, Ohio.
Two of three injured crew members who were evacuated from the ship by helicopter, including the ship’s commanding officer, Commander Bryce Benson, were released from the U.S. Naval Hospital in Yokosuka, the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet said on its Facebook page on Monday. The last sailor remained in hospital and no details were given about his condition.
Multiple U.S. and Japanese investigations are under way on how a ship as large as the container could collide with the smaller warship in clear weather. Shipping data in Thomson Reuters Eikon shows that the ACX Crystal, chartered by Japan’s Nippon Yusen KK, made a complete u-turn between 12:58 a.m. and 0246 a.m. local time on June 17. (15:58 GMT and 17:46 GMT on June 16).
Vice Adm. Joseph P. Aucoin, the Seventh Fleet commander, was asked on Sunday if damage on the starboard side indicated the U.S. ship could have been at fault, but he declined to speculate on the cause of the collision. Maritime rules suggest vessels are supposed to give way to ships on their starboard.
Japanese authorities were looking into the possibility of “endangerment of traffic caused by professional negligence”, Japanese media reported, but it was not clear whether that might apply to either or both of the vessels.
Japanese chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga said the Japanese government was investigating with the cooperation of the U.S. side and every effort would be made to maintain regional deterrence in the face of North Korea, which has recently conducted a series of missile tests.
“It is extremely important to maintain U.S. deterrence in the light of an increasingly severe regional security situation,” he told a news conference.
“We will maintain close contact with international society, including the United States and South Korea, to maintain vigilance and protect the safety of our people.”
The incident has sparked as many as three investigations by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coastguard, and two by Japanese authorities.
Complicating the probes could be issues of which side has jurisdiction and access to data such as radar records that the United States could deem as classified.
Although the collision occurred in Japanese waters, under a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that defines the scope of the U.S. military’s authority in Japan, the U.S. Navy could claim it has the authority to lead the investigations.
The ship is salvageable, Aucoin said, but repairs will likely take months. “Hopefully less than a year. You will see the USS Fitzgerald back,” Aucoin said.
This incident was the greatest loss of life on a U.S. Navy vessel since the USS Cole was bombed in Yemen’s Aden harbour in 2000, when 17 sailors were killed and 39 injured.
Naval historians recall possibly the last time a warship was hit by a larger vessel in peacetime was in 1964 off the coast of Australia’s New South Wales. The HMAS Melbourne, an aircraft carrier, collided with the destroyer HMAS Voyager, shearing the much smaller vessel in half and killing 82 of the Voyager’s crew.