UPDATE: The destroyer Fitzgerald, mangled from a rare, harrowing collision while at sea, returned to its home port of Yokosuka, Japan, at about 6:15 p.m. local time Saturday, capping a 16-hour effort by the crew to prevent an even greater crisis.
Seven sailors remain missing, and divers were standing by to assess the ship’s damage and try to access the spaces that were flooded when Fitzgerald collided with a merchant ship nearly four-times its size in the middle of the night. The incident occurred in the Philippine Sea, about 50 nautical miles southwest of Yokosuka.
Images show clearly the ship had taken on massive amounts of water during the ordeal. A news release from U.S. 7th Fleet confirmed that two berthing spaces, an auxiliary machine room and the ship’s radio room all flooded.
“The collision [a]ffected Fitzgerald’s forward starboard side above and below the water line, causing significant damage and associated flooding to two berthing spaces, a machinery space, and the radio room, which damage-control teams quickly began dewatering,” the release said. “While those efforts helped stabilize the flooding, it remains uncertain how long it will take to gain access to the spaces once the ship is pier side in Yokosuka in order to methodically continue the search for the missing.”
Three sailors, including the ship’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, were medically evacuated from the Fitzgerald by Japanese military aircraft and rushed back to mainland during the ship’s long transit home.
“All three Sailors are awake and will remain under observation at the hospital until further notice,” the release said.
Two additional sailors who sustained cuts and bruises were flown off the ship by aircraft assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 12. All other injuries were treated aboard Fitzgerald.
The accident occurred in a high-traffic area. Japan’s coast guard and maritime self-defense force surged to the scene, along with the U.S. destroyer Dewey. The military ships Ohnami, Hamagiri, and Enshu responded alongside the coast guard ships Izanami and Kano, which aided the crew in searching for the missing seven sailors.
The ACX Crystal that collided with Fitzgerald has a dead weight listed at nearly 40,000 tons, roughly the size of the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima and more than four-times larger than the 8,900-ton Fitzgerald.
The collision set in motion a desperate damage-control effort to control the flooding beneath the waterline. Benson, the commanding officer, was seriously injured in the collision, prompting the ship’s executive officer, Cmdr. Sean Babbitt, to assume command of the ship.
A search-and-rescue effort got underway once it was determined seven sailors were unaccounted for, with responding ships and aircraft scanning the sea to see if those personnel were in the water. That effort included a U.S. P-8 Poseidon, plus two Japanese helicopters and a P-3 Orion.
The head of U.S. 7th Fleet, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, praised the sailors’ efforts to save the ship and asked for privacy for the affected families in a statement.
“This has been a difficult day,” Aucoin said. “I am humbled by the bravery and tenacity of the Fitzgerald crew. Now that the ship is in Yokosuka, I ask that you help the families by maintaining their privacy as we continue the search for our shipmates.”
The Task Force 70 commander, Rear Adm. Charles Williams, echoed Aucoin and pointed to the Fitzgerald’s crew as courageous.
“I want to highlight the extraordinary courage of the Fitzgerald Sailors who contained the flooding, stabilized the ship, and sailed her back to Yokosuka despite the exceptionally trying circumstances,” Williams said.
The Navy is making counseling available to all affected sailors and family members, the statement read.