Seven US Navy crew missing, commander hurt in crash off Japan

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Yokosuka (Japan) (AFP) – The US and Japan were conducting a major search operation Saturday to find seven missing American sailors after their navy destroyer collided with a much larger container ship, crushing the side of the military vessel.

Planes, boats and helicopters scoured the seas off Japan’s Pacific coast in a bid to find the crew who disappeared in the predawn accident, which also left the USS Fitzgerald’s skipper injured.

It was not clear where the missing sailors were when the collision happened.

“Search and rescue efforts continue by US and Japanese aircraft and surface vessels in the hopes of recovering the seven USS Fitzgerald (crew) still unaccounted for,” the navy said Saturday evening.

The names are being withheld until their families have been notified.

Several other crew members were injured and had to be evacuated by air to hospital, including the guided missile destroyer’s commanding officer Bryce Benson.

Aerial television footage showed one person lying on a stretcher and a rescuer being pulled up to a helicopter that was hovering above the Fitzgerald, part of its right side caved in.

The collision between the Fitzgerald and Philippine-flagged container ship ACX Crystal happened around 2:30 am (1730 GMT Friday) off the coast of the Izu peninsula, southwest of Tokyo.

The damaged ship later sailed back to its base in Yokosuka. The accident happened 56 nautical miles (104 kilometres) southwest of the area, the navy said.

The crash site is a busy shipping channel that is a gateway to major container ports in Yokohama and Tokyo.

“The volume of ships is heavy in this area and there have been accidents before,” coastguard official Yutaka Saito told Japan’s public broadcaster NHK.

– ‘Going all out’ –

NHK said the massive 222-metre (730 foot) container vessel made a sharp turn around the time of the crash with the smaller, 154-metre US warship, but its captain suggested otherwise.

“(We) were sailing in the same direction as the US destroyer was and then collided,” he was quoted as saying by Jiji Press news agency.

Japan’s coastguard, which is probing the incident, said it has sent a half dozen vessels, several aircraft and a team of specially-trained rescue personnel to the scene. They were later joined by Japan’s Self-Defence Forces.

“We’re going all out in the search to find these missing people… but we still haven’t found any clues as to where they might be,” a coastguard spokesman said.

The destroyer was commissioned in 1995 and deployed in the Iraq war in 2003.

“My daughter is on the Fitzgerald,” a parent wrote on the 7th Fleet’s Facebook page.

“So worried. Just need to hear she is ok. Thinking of all of our sailors and their families!!”

Television images showed heavy damage to the right side of the ship just ahead of the control tower, and that it had taken on water.

The navy said the crash caused “significant damage” and flooding in two berthing spaces, a machinery space, and the ship’s radio room.

The ACX Crystal appeared to have relatively minor frontal damage, and none of its 20 crew were injured, the coastguard said.

The vessel — which sailed to a Tokyo port Saturday afternoon — is a commercial container ship with a Filipino crew, according to its Japanese owner, NYK Line.

It left the central Japanese city of Nagoya on Friday and had been due to arrive in the capital on Saturday.

“We can’t comment on the accident as it’s being handled by the Japanese coastguard,” a company spokesman told AFP.

“We will fully cooperate with authorities investigating the case.”



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