Rescuers search for 7 US sailors after collision off Japan



TOKYO, June 17 (Reuters) - Rescue crews searched into the early hours on Sunday for seven American sailors missing after a U.S. destroyer collided with a container ship in the pre-dawn hours off the coast of Japan.

U.S. 7th Fleet Vice Admiral Joseph P. Aucoin said the search was continuing in a statement released nearly 24 hours after the USS Fitzgerald, an Aegis guided missile destroyer, collided with the much larger Philippine-flagged merchant vessel 56 nautical miles southwest of Yokosuka.

SEE EARLIER: Japan coast guard confirms seven missing after US destroyer collides with container ship

"It's been a tough day for our Navy family. It's hard to imagine what this crew has had to endure, the challenges they've had to overcome," Aucoin said.

U.S. and Japanese aircraft and surface vessels continued the search after the Fitzgerald sailed into the port of Yokosuka south of Tokyo. Three aboard the destroyer were treated at the U.S. Naval Hospital, including ship Commander Bryce Benson.

It was not clear what caused the collision, which the U.S. Navy said occurred at about 2:30 a.m. local time (1730 GMT).

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USS Fitzgerald -- US Navy destroyer
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USS Fitzgerald -- US Navy destroyer
AT SEA - SEPTEMBER 8: (FILE PHOTO) In this handout photo provided by the U.S. Navy, the Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) is on patrol on Sept. 8, 2014, in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility in support of security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman David Flewellyn/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
AT SEA - JUNE 1: (FILE PHOTO) In this handout photo provided by the U.S. Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) is underway with the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group, on June 1, 2017 in the western Pacific region. Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and U.S. Navy forces routinely train together to improve interoperability and readiness to provide stability and security for the Indo-Asia Pacific region. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kelsey L. Adams/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
AT SEA - AUGUST 20: (FILE PHOTO) In this handout photo provided by the U.S. Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) is underway on August 20, 2013 in the Pacific Ocean. Fitzgerald is on patrol with the George Washington Carrier Strike Group in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Paul Kelly/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
AT SEA - MARCH 7: (FILE PHOTO) In this handout photo provided by the U.S. Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) launches a missile from the aft missile deck during Multisail 17 on March 7, 2017 in the Philippine Sea. The bilateral training exercise is designed to improve interoperability between the U.S. and Japanese forces. This exercise benefits from realistic, shared training enhancing our ability to work together to confront any contingency. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class William McCann/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
US destroyer USS Fitzgerald arrives at the former US naval base in Subic Bay, Olongapo City, north of Manila on June 27, 2013, to join the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises close to a flashpoint area of the South China Sea. The six-day exercises involving three US Navy vessels, including the USS Fitzgerald, a guided missile destroyer, are an annual event but this year they will be held off the west coast of the Philippines' main island of Luzon, close to Scarborough Shoal which China insists it owns. AFP PHOTO / David Bayarong (Photo credit should read david bayarong/AFP/Getty Images)
US destroyer USS Fitzgerald arrives at the former US naval base in Subic Bay, Olongapo City, north of Manila on June 27, 2013, to join the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises close to a flashpoint area of the South China Sea. The six-day exercises involving three US Navy vessels, including the USS Fitzgerald, a guided missile destroyer, are an annual event but this year they will be held off the west coast of the Philippines' main island of Luzon, close to Scarborough Shoal which China insists it owns. AFP PHOTO / David Bayarong (Photo credit should read david bayarong/AFP/Getty Images)
US destroyer USS Fitzgerald arrives at the former US naval base in Subic Bay, Olongapo City, north of Manila on June 27, 2013, to join the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises close to a flashpoint area of the South China Sea. The six-day exercises involving three US Navy vessels, including the USS Fitzgerald, a guided missile destroyer, are an annual event but this year they will be held off the west coast of the Philippines' main island of Luzon, close to Scarborough Shoal which China insists it owns. AFP PHOTO / David Bayarong (Photo credit should read david bayarong/AFP/Getty Images)
[UNVERIFIED CONTENT] Seen at Yokosuka, Kanagawa, Japan
QINGDAO, CHINA - APRIL 19: (CHINA OUT) Chinese naval soldiers welcome the arrival of the USS Fitzgerald at Qingdao Port on April 19, 2009 in Qingdao of Shandong Province, China. China's navy is set to hold a huge maritime ceremony to mark its 60 years of the Chinese navy and has invited ships and top officials from dozens of countries to attend. (Photo by Zhang Lei/VCG via Getty Images)
QINGDAO, CHINA - APRIL 19: (CHINA OUT) The USS Fitzgerald docks at Qingdao Port on April 19, 2009 in Qingdao of Shandong Province, China. China's navy is set to hold a huge maritime ceremony to mark its 60 years of the Chinese navy and has invited ships and top officials from dozens of countries to attend. (Photo by Zhang Lei/VCG via Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (C) leaves the USS Fitzgerald, a US Navy destroyer, docked at the Manila bay, after signing a declaration marking the 60 years since the United States signed a security treaty with the Philippines on November 16, 2011. Clinton vowed military support for the Philippines, delivering a firm message from the deck of an American warship at a time of rising tensions with China. AFP PHOTO/NOEL CELIS (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)
US destroyer USS Fitzgerald arrives at the former US naval base in Subic Bay, Olongapo City, north of Manila on June 27, 2013, to join the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises close to a flashpoint area of the South China Sea. The six-day exercises involving three US Navy vessels, including the USS Fitzgerald, a guided missile destroyer, are an annual event but this year they will be held off the west coast of the Philippines' main island of Luzon, close to Scarborough Shoal which China insists it owns. AFP PHOTO / David Bayarong (Photo credit should read david bayarong/AFP/Getty Images)
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"Thoughts and prayers with the sailors of USS Fitzgerald and their families. Thank you to our Japanese allies for their assistance," U.S. President Donald Trump said in a Twitter post on Saturday.

The Fitzgerald suffered damage on her starboard side above and below the waterline, the Navy said.

Japan's Nippon Yusen KK, which charters the container ship, ASX Crystal, said in a statement it would "cooperate fully" with the Coast Guard's investigation of the incident. At around 29,000 tons displacement, the ship dwarfs the 8,315-ton U.S. warship, and was carrying 1,080 containers from the port of Nagoya to Tokyo.

None of the 20 crew members aboard the container ship, all Filipino, were injured, and the ship was not leaking oil, Nippon Yusen said. The ship arrived at Tokyo Bay later in the day.

The waterways approaching Tokyo Bay are busy with commercial vessels sailing to and from Japan's two biggest container ports in Tokyo and Yokohama. (Reporting by Tory Hanai and Megumi Lim in Tokyo; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish)

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