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Navy isn’t sure how destroyer collision that killed 7 happened

The U.S. Navy has confirmed the identities of all seven sailors who died when the USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship off the coast of Japan June 17, as multiple investigations are set up to establish exactly what caused the terrible accident.

The USS Fitzgerald was struck by the Philippine-flagged merchant vessel ACX Crystal near the port city of Yokosuka – the home base for the U.S. ship. The accident took place at around 2:30 a.m. local time on Saturday (12.30 p.m. ET Friday), with seven sailors immediately reported missing.

The U.S. and Japanese navies initially launched a search and rescue effort, but after divers gained access to the area, a statement from the U.S. Navy Sunday said that the remains of the seven missing crew were found in flooded berthing compartments. The seven sailors, who ranged in age from 19 to 27, have all now been named. Three others were injured in the attack, including the captain, Commander Bryce Benson, who was airlifted to the naval hospital at Yokosuka.

Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin told reporters that the captain was “lucky to be alive,” after his cabin was completely destroyed in the impact. He added that the ship would likely have sunk were it not for the heroic efforts of sailors on board, who prevented the flooding from “catastrophically spreading” to other parts of the warship.

This marks the greatest loss of life on a U.S. naval vessel since the USS Cole was bombed in Yemen’s Aden harbor in 2000, killing 17 sailors and injuring 39.

What happened?

On a calm and clear night just south of Tokyo Bay, the ACX Crystal carried out a sudden U-turn, roughly 25 minutes before the crash. The 30,000-ton container ship was en route to Tokyo from Nagoya and had already been at sea for seven hours when the collision occurred. There is no explanation so far as to why it made the sudden change of course.

While tracking data on the Marine Traffic website shows exactly where the ACX Crystal was at 2.30 a.m. Saturday morning, similar data is not available for military ships like the USS Fitzgerald.

The container ship struck the starboard side of the 10,000-ton guided-missile destroyer, which sustained significant damage. While pictures taken following the accident show damage to the portion of the ship above water, it was the damage caused below waterline that was catastrophic – flooding two crew compartments, the radio room, and the auxiliary machine room.

The ACX Crystal suffered minor damage to its port bow, and none of the 20 crew members were injured in the collision.

Who is to blame?

While complete details are yet to emerge, the unexplained U-turn by the ACX Crystal will be a major area of interest. As well as this issue, the BBC points out that maritime rule states vessels are supposed to give way to ships on their starboard side. Given that this was where the damage to the destroyer was inflicted, questions will be raised over whether the U.S. ship could have been at fault.

When asked about this Sunday, Aucoin declined to speculate on the cause of the collision. It remains a mystery how two ships equipped with sophisticated radar equipment could have failed to avoid the impact on a clear night.

Investigations by the U.S. navy, U.S. coast guard, and by two separate Japanese authorities are already underway, with Japanese media reporting that investigators there are looking into “endangerment of traffic caused by professional negligence”  — though it is unclear if that relates to one or both vessels.

Given that the ACX Crystal was registered in the Philippines, there could also be another investigation opened by authorities there.

The sailors who lost their lives have been named as:

  • Gunner’s Mate Seaman Dakota Kyle Rigsby, 19, from Palmyra, Virginia
  • Yeoman 3rd Class Shingo Alexander Douglass, 25, from San Diego
  • Sonar Technician 3rd Class Ngoc T Truong Huynh, 25, from Oakville, Connecticut
  • Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Noe Hernandez, 26, from Weslaco, Texas
  • Fire Controlman 2nd Class Carlos Victor Ganzon Sibayan, 23, from Chula Vista, California
  • Personnel Specialist 1st Class Xavier Alec Martin, 24, from Halethorpe, Maryland
  • Fire Controlman 1st Class Gary Leo Rehm Jr., 37, from Elyria, Ohio

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