U.S. and Japan launch air-and-sea search for 7 missing U.S. sailors

TOKYO — U.S. and Japanese joined in air-and-sea search missions Saturday for seven American sailors missing after their Navy destroyer collided with a much-larger container vessel off the coast of Japan.

The damaged USS Fitzgerald reached its home port at Yokosuka Naval Base south of Tokyo after emergency efforts at sea to control flooding.

The operators of the merchant ship, ACX Crystal, reported all members of the 20-member Filipino crew were safe.

Civilian and military investigators, meanwhile, began trying to piece together the cause of the nighttime collision.

The Philippine-flagged Crystal is nearly four times as large as the Fitzgerald, an Aegis guided missile destroyer. Japanese and U.S. search vessels and aircraft fanned out across waters off Japan’s Izu peninsula south of Tokyo. The Japanese coast guard led the search teams.

Three sailors, including the destroyer’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, were evacuated from the damaged vessel and are being treated at the U.S. naval hospital at Yokosuka, the home of the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet.

Benson was reported to be in stable condition in the hospital, while the other two were still having their injuries assessed. The Seventh Fleet had set up an information center for families of sailors serving on the ship.

“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.

The USS Dewey, another destroyer, and two naval tugboats were at the scene, about 12 miles from the Izu Peninsula and 56 nautical miles southwest of Yokosuka, searching for the missing sailors. Two Japanese coast guard cutters with helicopters were helping. The Fitzgerald eventually returned to Yokosuka Naval Base.

The Crystal, which is fully loaded with cargo, is bound for Tokyo, according to a website that tracks maritime traffic . Nippon Yusen K.K., the Japanese shipping company that operates the container ship that collided with a U.S. Navy destroyer, said its crew was accounted for.

Local broadcaster NHK showed helicopter footage of the container ship with minor damage to its bow, while the Fitzgerald appeared to have significant damage above and below the waterline. Water was being pumped from aboard the Navy ship.

The Fitzgerald is part of the Yokosuka-based group that includes the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, but it was operating independently of the carrier when the collision occurred, Flanders said.

The Fitzgerald was operating under its own power after the collision, but was making only 1 to 3 mph.When its crew is at full strength, the Fitzgerald usually has more than 250 personnel aboard and can reach speeds well over 30 mph. It is unclear how fast the destroyer was traveling when it and the merchant ship collided.Also unclear was how the two massive vessels collided.There are extensive international guidelines for accident avoidance at sea known as the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, or Colregs.The rules require that ships must have a watch posted at all times and follow a number of collision-avoidance steps when crossing paths with or overtaking other vessels.Gibbons-Neff reported […]