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‘Search and rescue is over’ for missing Fitzgerald sailors, 7th Fleet commander says

Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin address the public concerning the USS Fitzgerald which experienced extensive damage and flooding after a collision with the Filipino container ship on June 17, 2017 off the coast of Honshu, Japan.
U.S. Navy 7th Fleet

By TYLER HLAVAC | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 17, 2017

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan – The Navy ended search-and-rescue efforts after a “number of sailors” were found dead in the aftermath of the USS Fitzgerald’s collision Saturday with a cargo ship off the Japanese coast.

UPDATE | Navy identifies sailors found dead in USS Fitzgerald crash

The “search and rescue is over,” Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, 7th Fleet commander, told reporters gathered Sunday at Yokosuka near the destroyer, which was damaged above and below the water line on the starboard side near its bridge. “We’ve discontinued search and rescue.”

The collision between the destroyer and the Philippine-flagged ACX Crystal happened about 2:30 a.m. Saturday, about 64 miles southwest of Yokosuka near the Izu Peninsula, a Navy statement said.

Seven Fitzgerald sailors were missing, and three, including the ship’s commander, were medically evacuated to Naval Hospital Yokosuka.

Aucoin wouldn’t say exactly how many of the missing sailors had been recovered, citing notification of the victims’ families.

“The families are being notified and are being provided support they all need at this difficult time,” he said. “The strength of my fleet are my people. This loss is something we all feel. Our deepest sympathies go out to the families and those shipmates.”

The sailors were found in a flooded berthing compartment after search-and-rescue crew members gained access to spaces that were damaged during the collision, the 7th Fleet said in a statement Sunday.

A tweet from Naval Forces Japan said divers “were able to access the space and found a number of sailors. None alive. MTF. We will ID sailors after [next-of-kin] notification.”

An earlier 7th Fleet statement said the sailors had been found and were being taken to Naval Hospital Yokosuka, but did not state whether they were dead. A later statement clarified that the sailors’ bodies had been found.

The Crystal was heading east, not far from its Tokyo Bay destination, when it turned around and traveled in a circle, according to public data from the ship’s automatic tracking system posted on Marinetraffic.com. It had completed its circle at roughly the same time of the reported collision, according to the data.

Before 7th Fleet called off its efforts, a spokesman for Japan’s 3rd Regional Coast Guard Headquarters told Stars and Stripes the agency searched the collision site on Sunday with two patrol ships and two helicopters.

The Japan Coast Guard has interviewed the Crystal’s crew about the incident, but has yet to speak with Fitzgerald personnel, the spokesman said.

There were no injuries or missing personnel reported on the Crystal, he said.

Aucoin said several investigations into the incident will be conducted, and that he will appoint a flag officer to oversee a Judge Advocate General Manual Investigation. He added that the Navy intends to fully cooperate with Japanese authorities on their investigation.

About 400 ships pass each day through the shipping lane where the collision occurred, said the coast guard spokesman, who added that three similar accidents happened there within the past five years.

Cmdr. Bryce Benson was in stable condition on Sunday, Navy officials said. The other two injured sailors were treated for lacerations and bruises.

Aucoin said Benson’s living area was among many spots on the ship that received significant damage.

“His cabin was destroyed,” Aucoin said. “He’s lucky to be alive.”

Aucoin said the Fitzgerald will sail again.

“The ship is salvageable,” he said. “It will require some significant repairs. You will see the USS Fitzgerald back as one of our warships here. [Repair time] will take months, hopefully under a year.”

The Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society is offering uniforms and clothing it has collected from the Yokosuka community to Fitzgerald sailors, according to the group’s Facebook page. Their thrift store was open Sunday and will be open Monday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., and Tuesday from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The USO’s Yokosuka branch is also setting up a meal plan for Fitzgerald sailors in need, according to its Facebook page. The group has asked for a pause in donations as it distributes contributions from the community.

The Fitzgerald, which received $21 million in upgrades and repairs in February, is forward deployed to Yokosuka as part of the USS Ronald Reagan Strike Group. It took part in training near the Korean Peninsula last month involving ships from both the Reagan and USS Carl Vinson strike groups and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.

Stars and Stripes reporters Erik Slavin and Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

hlavac.tyler@stripes.com
 

Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, 7th Fleet commander, answers questions about the USS Fitzgerald collision during a news conference at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, Sunday, June 18, 2017.
TYLER HLAVAC/STARS AND STRIPES

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