U.S. Navy Calls Off Its Search for Missing Sailors

Their bodies were found inside a flooded compartment in the USS Fitzgerald, which had crashed the day before with a container ship.

The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald returns to base after a collision.

The search for seven missing U.S. Navy sailors who went missing after their destroyer collided with a container ship near Japan was called off Sunday. Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, commander of the Navy’s 7th Fleet, said divers found a “number of” bodies in a flooded compartment in the USS Fitzgerald, although he did not specify how many.

The day before, while near its home base port in Yokosuka, Japan, the destroyer crashed into a Philippine container ship about four times its size. Much of the crew was asleep during the collision, which struck the ship on its side and destroyed a machinery room and two berthing areas. Aucoin described the damage as “significant” and the destroyer had to be dragged back to the port by several tug boats. It was not clear if the sailors died because of the force of the crash, or if they drowned as the compartments flooded. Speaking to reporters in the port of Yokosuka, Aucoin praised the crew for saving the ship, which likely saved more lives.

“They prevented the ship from foundering, or even sinking, last night,” he said. “As to how much warning they had, I don’t know. That’s going to be found out during the investigation, but it was a significant impact that the crew had to fight very hard to keep the ship afloat.”

The reason for the crash is still being investigated. But the damage suggests that the destroyer may have hit at high speed, and there’s questions about why the two ships weren’t in better communication. The area is dangerous, with strong currents and crowds of ships hauling cargo, especially early in the morning as they rush to make it to port for daily deliveries. The container ship, the ACX Crystal, weighs nearly 30,000 tons and is more than 700 feet long. The destroyer is just over 8,000 tons. Local media said ship trackers showed the container ship was  making a U-turn before the crash, a dangerous maneuver to make in the area. But the ship’s skipper later said they were sailing in the same direction.

Since the collision happened in Japanese waters, its coast guard is allowed to investigate, but an agreement with the U.S. gives it the primary role when a crash includes its own ships. Since the investigation was just beginning, he Navy and Japanese coast guards would only say that they planned to interview the container ship’s crew, and that the incident could be treated as  professional negligence.

President Trump has been briefed on the incident, and in a tweet he said: “Thoughts and prayers with the sailors of USS Fitzgerald and their families. Thank you to our Japanese allies for their assistance.”