WASHINGTON, U.S. - One of the most advanced warships in the world, USS Fitzgerald collided with a merchant vessel off the coast of Japan and reports noted that seven U.S. Navy crew members are missing.
The Japanese coast guard said that the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer with a crew of approximately 330 sailors collided with a container ship at about 02:30 local time on Saturday (18:30 BST Friday) in the Pacific Ocean, about 56 nautical miles (104km) south-west of Yokosuka and 12 miles off the Izu Peninsula.
The Japanese coast guard said the area of the collision is known for its heavy maritime traffic with shipping heading in and out of Tokyo bay and has been the site of numerous past accidents.
Aerial images showed heavy damage to the Navy ship’s starboard side and reports stated that the commanding officer of the USS Fitzgerald, Cdr Bryce Benson, was among the injured and was taken to the hospital by helicopter.
According to Navy officials, Cdr Benson, who took command of the vessel on May 13, after serving as the ship's executive officer since November 2015, was in a stable condition after being transferred to U.S. Naval Hospital Yokosuka.
The U.S. 7th Fleet said in a tweet that two other sailors were flown to the hospital by helicopter for treatment for "lacerations and bruises.”
Post the crash, the U.S. 7th Fleet said that the USS Fitzgerald had experienced flooding in some areas, and the full extent of injuries was being determined.
Adding that the 154-metre (505ft) ship was now on its way to Yokosuka - under its own power, but with limited propulsion.
Reports subsequently quoted the coast guard as saying the ACX Crystal container ship carried a Filipino flag and weighed just under 30,000 tonnes, about three times that of the USS Fitzgerald.
According to the ship tracking website marinetraffic.com, the ship had left the Japanese port of Nagoya on Friday evening and was expected to dock at a Tokyo Bay port around 4:30 p.m. local time.
Officials said the container ship was operating under charter to a Japanese shipping company.
According to Japanese national broadcaster NHK it sustained lighter damage to the port bow.
However, Nippon Yusen K.K., the Japanese shipping company that operates the container ship confirmed that all of the 20-member Filipino crew were safe.
The U.S. Navy operations chief Adm John Richardson said in a statement released on social media, “As more information is learnt we will be sure to share it with the Fitzgerald families and when appropriate the public. [...] All our thoughts and concerns are with the Fitzgerald crew and their families."
In February this year, USS Fitzgerald, displacing 10,000 tons and 505 feet long, completed $21 million in upgrades and repairs and is forward-deployed to Yokosuka, supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, the service said.
Meanwhile, the Crystal displaces 29,060 tons and is 741 feet long.
On Saturday, the Japanese coast guard said U.S. and Japanese forces joined in air-and-sea search missions for seven American sailors that remained missing after the crash.
Four of its vessels and one helicopter were assisting the U.S. Navy destroyer with damage assessment and the search in the area around the ship - working on the possibility that some of the missing may have fallen into the ocean.
Civilian and military investigators too began trying to piece together the cause of the nighttime collision.
Former officials claimed on Saturday that the lack of navy secretary and ambassador to Japan could hamper communications in search for missing crew.
Experts criticised U.S. President Donald Trump for delays in appointing officials for the important role, leaving a communications vacuum as the countries continue their search for seven missing sailors.
The U.S. has been without an ambassador to Japan since Caroline Kennedy left Tokyo in January.
While the Tennessee businessman William Hagerty and her possible successor, has attended a Senate confirmation hearing - he is yet to take up his post.
Meanwhile, Brandon Friedman, a former Obama administration official and co-founder of the McPherson Square Group, a strategic communications firm in Washington said the absence of an ambassador and navy secretary – two officials who would be expected to take a lead in liaising between the U.S. navy, and Japanese and U.S. government officials during the search, will change the course of the search.
Friedman added, “The USS Fitzgerald might sink off Japan and the U.S. President can’t call our ambassador or our navy secretary because we have neither.”
Trump’s nominee for U.S. navy secretary, Richard Spencer too is yet to be confirmed by the Senate.