The search for seven sailors following the collision between the USS Fitzgerald, a U.S. Navy warship stationed off the coast of Japan, and a Philippines-flagged merchant vessel (the Crystal) has yielded no positive results. Although the ship was not in immediate danger of sinking, the incident saw the Navy destroyer immediately take on a great deal of water with the Japanese Coast Guard assisting the ship (and over 300 sailors, who were mostly sleeping when the collision occurred, on board) back to its base.
CNN relays word from a U.S. military official, who says the sailors’ remains were found on Sunday morning within flooded compartments of the warship. The starboard side of the ship had been significantly mangled with twisted wreckage making the process a painstakingly difficult and lengthy one. However, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin believes that the loss of life could have been even greater:
“There was a big puncture, a big gash underneath the waterline” along the bottom of the ship, Aucoin said.
The water flow into compartments that were berthing areas for 116 of the ship’s crew was “tremendous,” he said, adding that “there wasn’t a lot of time in those spaces that were open to the sea.”
Among those with destroyed cabins was the ship’s captain, Commander Bryce Benson, who survived the incident, although it’s not known whether he was elsewhere aboard the ship during the collision. And although the Navy will not officially confirm the number of dead (or the sailors’ names) until all families have been notified, the U.S. military has confirmed that all search efforts have concluded.
The Washington Post further reports an investigation has begun into the cause of the collision between the “technologically advanced” warship and the bulky shipping vessel. That the damage occurred to the USS Fitzgerald’s starboard side indicates that the Navy vessel had the right of way, according to international maritime rules. The New York Times reports that the Crystal’s maneuvers before the crash are at issue within the investigation:
But maritime experts cautioned that many other factors could have led to a crash. Marine traffic records show the Crystal made a series of sharp turns about 25 minutes before the collision, which in crowded seas could cause a cascade of maneuvers by other vessels.
“Those are very high-traffic-density areas near coastal waters,” said Bill Doherty, a ship safety investigator and auditor with a long career of service on naval warships. “When a big ship like that makes a drastic change in a high traffic area, that has to be explained.”
The resulting damage of the collision created a severe emergency with the USS Fitzgerald’s pumps working overtime to discharge water as the ship was towed back to base. However, the Crystal (which is 730 feet long and over 200 feet longer than the Navy warship) only sustained minor damage with no injuries reported.