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Sailors' bodies found on ship

Damaged warship back at port; crash cause under review

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Photographs by AP/EUGENE HOSHIKO

The USS Fitzgerald is towed to its home port of Yokosuka Naval Base south of Tokyo on Saturday. The destroyer’s collision with a cargo ship caused flooding in berthing areas as most of its crew slept.

YOKOSUKA, Japan -- The U.S. Navy said this morning that searchers had found the bodies of some of the sailors missing since a container ship slammed into the USS Fitzgerald destroyer before dawn Saturday in the sea off Japan.

The USS Fitzgerald arrives for repairs Saturday at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, as officials worked to determine the cause of the destroyer’s collisio...

An injured crew member of the USS Fitzgerald is carried by U.S. military personnel and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force members at Yokosuka Naval...

This aerial view shows the damage to the USS Fitzgerald as the destroyer makes its way to Yokosuka Naval Base on Saturday.

Damage to the bow of the Philippine cargo ship ACX Crystal is visible as it travels to a Tokyo wharf Saturday.

Navy divers gained access to the spaces that were damaged during the collision and took the sailors' remains to Naval Hospital Yokosuka where they were to be identified, the Navy said in a statement. Seven sailors had been missing, but Yoko Kato, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy in Yokosuka, said not all seven were recovered.

She didn't say how many were found.

The statement said the sailors' families were being notified and were being provided support during "this difficult time." The names of the sailors will be released after of their families have been notified, officials said.

Japanese coast guard officials said a sea and air search involving Japanese and U.S. vessels was continuing at the site of the collision.

The USS Fitzgerald was about 64 miles south of Yokosuka about 2:30 a.m. Saturday when the ACX Crystal crashed nose-first into the destroyer's right side. It was a clear night.

The shipping lane where the collision occurred is a congested one, with about 400 vessels passing through each day, the Japanese coast guard said. Three major accidents have been reported in the area in the past five years, including at least one resulting in a fatality, said Masayuki Obara, a regional coast guard official.

Under international maritime rules, a vessel is supposed to give way to another one on its right side. The damage patterns indicate that the ACX Crystal was to the Fitzgerald's right and therefore had the right of way.

But maritime experts cautioned that many factors could have contributed to the crash. Marine traffic records show that the ACX Crystal made a sharp turn about 25 minutes before the collision.

The damaged destroyer returned to its home port at Yokosuka Naval Base south of Tokyo by sunset Saturday, its crew lined up on deck. The Philippine-flagged container ship was berthed at Tokyo's Oi wharf, where officials began questioning crew members about the crash.

After helping stabilize the USS Fitzgerald, the destroyer USS Dewey joined other American and Japanese vessels and aircraft in the search for the missing sailors.

The U.S. 7th Fleet said in a statement that the crash damaged and caused flooding in two berthing spaces, a machinery room and the radio room. Most of the more than 200 sailors aboard would have been asleep in their cabins at the time of the crash.

The statement said water had to be pumped out of flooded areas of the ship, which was crushed on its middle right side. Divers at the pier were to inspect the damage below the waterline.

"This has been a difficult day," said Vice Adm. Joseph P. Aucoin, the commander of the 7th Fleet. "I am humbled by the bravery and tenacity of the Fitzgerald crew. Now that the ship is in Yokosuka, I ask that you help the families by maintaining their privacy as we continue the search for our shipmates."

At least three sailors were injured in the crash.

The Fitzgerald's captain, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, was airlifted early Saturday to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Yokosuka and was listed in stable condition with a head injury, the Navy said. Two other crew members suffered cuts and bruises, and also were evacuated. It was unclear how many others may have been hurt.

"Right now we are focused on two things: the safety of the ship and the well-being of the sailors," said Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

"Thoughts and prayers with the sailors of USS Fitzgerald and their families," President Donald Trump said on Twitter. "Thank you to our Japanese allies for their assistance."

The Fitzgerald, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer commissioned in 1995, is part of the Yokosuka-based group that includes the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. The Fitzgerald was operating independently of the carrier when the collision occurred, according to Cmdr. Ron Flanders, public affairs officer for U.S. Naval Forces Japan.

When its crew is at full strength, the Fitzgerald has more than 250 personnel aboard and can reach speeds in excess of 30 knots, or about 34.5 mph.

Family members frantic for news appealed via social media for calls from sailors aboard the ship.

"Just heard the sweetest voice and saw a wonderful face. He's okay. Thank you all for the prayers," Rita Schrimsher of Athens, Ala., tweeted after speaking with her 23-year-old grandson, Jackson Schrimsher, via Facetime.

"It could have been worse, so we're grateful," she said by phone.

Cause of the crash

Civilian and military investigators worked today to figure out what caused the nighttime collision between two modern vessels both equipped with advanced navigation systems.

Extensive international guidelines, known as the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, exist to avoid such sea accidents.

"We don't know what information was available to each of these vessels at the time," said Marjorie Murtagh Cooke, a former director of the National Transportation Safety Board's office of marine safety. "Was all of their equipment working? Was one vessel at anchor and the other moving? There are just so many facts that we don't have yet." She said it could take a year or more to determine the exact cause of the collision.

The rules require that ships each have a watch posted at all times and follow a number of collision-avoidance steps when crossing paths with or overtaking other vessels.

The Japanese coast guard said it received an emergency call from the ACX Crystal about 2:30 a.m., reporting the collision.

The coast guard officials were questioning crew members of the ACX Crystal, which is operated by the Japanese shipping company Nippon Yusen K.K. Those officials were treating the incident as a case of possible professional negligence, Obara said.

The ACX Crystal weighs 29,060 tons and is 730 feet long, the coast guard said, much larger than the 8,315-ton, 505-foot Navy destroyer. The container ship's left bow was dented and scraped, but it did not appear to have any major structural damage.

Nippon Yusen said all of the ACX Crystal's 20 Filipino crew members were safe.

"We are collaborating with the ship owner and fully cooperating with the investigation by the coast guard," the company said in a statement.

The ACX Crystal, which was fully loaded with cargo, was bound for Tokyo, according to a website that tracks maritime traffic. It was on its way from Japan's Nagoya port at the time of the collision.

Bill Doherty, a ship safety investigator and auditor with a long career of service on naval warships, warned that what happens at sea and whether rules were followed can be difficult to determine from afar. He pointed out that regulations on right of way, for example, get murkier when there are more than two vessels in any given area.

That is important, he said, because the area where the crash occurred is typically dense with traffic, even at night.

Another possibility is that one or both vessels were acting "in extremis," or ahead of what appears to be an imminent collision, Doherty said. "At that point, both vessels are burdened, and then both vessels, by law, are required to immediately take the best action to aid to avert a collision."

Information for this article was contributed by Eugene Hoshiko, Koji Ueda, Mari Yamaguchi, Elaine Kurtenbach, Cathy Bussewitz and Jennifer Kelleher of The Associated Press; by Anna Fifield and Thomas Gibbons-Neff of The Washington Post; and by Jonathan Soble, Motoko Rich, Andy Newman, Scott Shane and Jacey Fortin of The New York Times.

A Section on 06/18/2017

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