After the United States destroyer collided with a Philippine merchant vessel on Saturday, just off the coast of Japan, seven US Navy sailors have been declared missing, according to the US Navy. The officer in command of the Fitzgerald, a guided missile destroyer, along with seven crewmembers were injured. The officer of the ship, Cmdr. Bryce Benson was evacuated by helicopter and transported for treatment by medevac to a United States Naval base, according to the United States Seventh Fleet. It has been reported that Benson is in stable condition and being treated at the Yokosuka US Naval Hospital, but there are still two US Navy soldiers in the process of injury assessment.
In a statement made by the US Navy, two other sailors have reportedly been evacuated by helicopter as well, suffering lacerations and bruises that were being treated. As seen in Japanese-captured videos, the Fitzgerald sustained extensive damage, and even though the ship had taken on water, it was able to operate under his own power- even though it was only traveling 3 knots, or between 1 and 3 mph. When the crew of the ship is at the full capacity of 250 soldiers, the 1995-commissioned Arleigh Burke-class destroyer can exceed speeds of 30 knots. The Seventh Fleet reported that the Fitzgerald, escorted by Japanese Coast Guard ships, was towed to its’ home port, located just south of Tokyo at the Yokosuka Naval Base on Saturday.
The 700 feet long Japanese vessel involved in the collision, ACX Crystal, did not show as much damage, and no immediate reports of injuries were mad by the container ship. The merchant’s vessel did not spill any oil is owned by Dainichi-Invest Corporation. Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha, a Japanese shipping company, operates it.
The hull of the 500 feet long Fitzgerald was partially caved inwards on the starboard side and helicopter footage shows significant damage sustained both below and above the waterline and water being visibly pumped- all while the bow of the Crystal appeared to had suffered only deep gashes. Judging by the appearance of the damage pattern, some suggest that the Crystal, being a vessel that is four times bigger than the Fitzgerald is and carrying shipping containers collided with the side of Fitzgerald’s nose first.
“The collision affected Fitzgerald’s forward starboard side above and below the water line, causing significant damage and associated flooding to two berthing spaces, a machinery space, and the radio room,” said the US 7th Fleet in a statement.
According to a Japanese Coast Guard official, Masayuki Obara, who provided aid to the Fitzgerald and assisted with the search for missing crewmembers, an unidentified sailor aboard the destroyer sustained an injury to the head and was not able to walk.
The Fitzgerald, along with two American aircraft carriers and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force ships, had recently been a participant in military exercises. The ship had departed from its base in Yokosuka early Friday in order to participate in routine operations that were conducted in the area, according to a Japanese-US Navy representative.
According to the Seventh Fleet, the collision occurred around 2:30 AM local time and located at the United States naval base, nearly 54 nautical miles south of Yokosuka, Japan, and 12 miles away from the Japanese Peninsula, Izu. The cause of the collision is still undetermined.
The site of the collision is known for heavy Martine traffic, with as many as 500 ships passing through the zone every day, according to the Japanese Coast Guard. The last fatal incident report it was back in September 2015, when a Japanese container ship and South Korean vessel collided, resulting in the deaths of six Japanese crewmembers. Over the course of the past five years, two other significant collisions occurred in the same spot.
According to former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center and professor at Hawaii Pacific University, Carl Schuster, it is possible that the ships were involved in a “restricted navigation” situation, which would have required them to observe strict rules regarding positioning and movements when considering other vessels located within the vicinity. These regulations resulted in very little room for the vessels to maneuver and could put one of the vessels at risk when the other ship is attempting to turn away.
Forces from Japan and United States joined together to conduct missions by air and sea to search for seven American soldiers who were declared missing after the collision. The Japanese Coast Guard leading the search deployed Japanese helicopters to assist with the mission. According to the commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, Adm. Scott Swift, “Right now we are focused on two things: the safety of the ship and the well-being of the sailors.”
“It remains uncertain how long it will take to gain access to the spaces once the ship is pier side … to methodically continue the search for the missing,” as said in a statement from the US 7th Fleet that hints that the missing soldiers could possibly be trapped in an area of the destroyer that is damaged. Operators of the ACX Crystal merchant ship indicated that all 20 members of the Filipino crew were accounted for.
Others suggest that the force of the collision could have been strong enough to throw sailors overboard if they were standing watch from the side of the destroyer that is opposite from where the collision took place. The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea requires ships to have a watch posted on deck at all times, charging them with the responsibility of adhering to a collection of collision-avoidance steps during the path crossing or overtaking of other vessels.
Commander in Chief Trump published a message on Twitter saying, “Thoughts and prayers with the sailors of USS Fitzgerald and their families. Thank you to our Japanese allies for their assistance.”