The bodies of seven U.S. sailors missing after a Navy destroyer collided with a container ship off Japan were found in flooded berthing compartments, a defense official said.
The U.S. 7th Fleet said in a statement Sunday morning local time that “a number of sailors that were missing” were found in flooded compartments. The fleet commander would not give an exact number of the bodies found because family notifications were still being made. He said a search and rescue effort was ended.
“I ask that you [keep] your thoughts and prayers for the family members and the crew,” U.S. 7th Fleet commander Vice Admiral Joseph P. Aucoin said at a press conference Sunday afternoon local time.
The USS Fitzgerald collided with the Philippine-flagged merchant ship the ACX Crystal at around 2:30 a.m. Saturday local time (1:30 p.m. Friday ET) about 56 nautical miles southwest of Yokosuka, officials said. A defense official told NBC News that the bodies of all seven sailors have been found.
The collision with the container ship tore “a big gash underneath the water line” and the crew had to fight to keep the vessel from foundering or sinking, Aucoin said.
“They had to fight the ship to keep it above the surface. So it was traumatic,” Aucoin said, calling the crew’s efforts heroic. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of the crew for what they did to save the ship,” he said.
A significant portion of the crew was asleep at the time of the collision, Aucoin said. The bodies were found in flooded berthing compartments after divers were able to reach the areas, the Fleet said. The two damaged berthing compartments house a combined 116 crew members, Aucoin said.
“It’s a large gash near the keel of the ship, so the water flow was tremendous,” Aucoin said. The identities of the sailors that had been reported missing have not been released.
Aucoin said he did not know the exact circumstances before the collision but said he would launch an investigation, and that there will also be a safety investigation and other probes into what occurred.
Asked about the mechanics of the collision and any maneuvers that preceded it, Aucoin said he did not know full details yet, but said “they were hit on the side by the tanker, a 29,000-ton merchant freighter.”
Three U.S. sailors, including the Fitzgerald’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, were injured in the collision and were transported by helicopter to a naval hospital in Yokosuka. All three are awake and under observation, the Fleet said Saturday.
The ACX Crystal had 20 crew Filipino crew members aboard and there were no injuries on that vessel, a Japanese Coast Guard official said.
U.S. and Japanese aircraft and surface ships launched a search looking for the unaccounted-for sailors after the collision. The Fitzgerald returned to Yokosuka Saturday evening local time, the Navy said.
Rear Admiral Charles Williams, commander of Task Force 70, in a statement earlier praised the “extraordinary courage” of the Fitzgerald’s sailors in stabilizing the ship and sailing the vessel back to Yokosuka under “exceptionally trying circumstances.”
Aucoin said repairs to the ship could take months, and hopefully would be done in less than a year.
“You will see the USS Fitzgerald back as one of our warships,” Aucoin said.