Fitzgerald commander took over ship last month

The damaged USS Fitzgerald is towed into port at the US naval base in Yokosuka

The damaged USS Fitzgerald is towed into port at the US naval base in Yokosuka

YOKOSUKA, Japan - A U.S. Navy destroyer came close to sinking after a "traumatic" collision off the coast of Japan, the commander of the Seventh Fleet said Sunday, after the bodies of the missing sailors were found in the berthing compartments of the stricken vessel.

"The damage was significant, this was not a small collision", said Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the commander of the Navy's 7th Fleet. He was the first person I would vent to even though he was away, because I knew he would always reply and be honest with me. The 222-metre Philippine-flagged ACX Crystal had large scrapes on its bow, but none of its 20 crew were injured, Japan's coastguard said. The two damaged berthing compartments house a combined 116 crew members, Aucoin said.

In a tweet Sunday, the Navy says the search for the missing sailors is continuing. "I am humbled by the bravery and tenacity of the Fitzgerald crew".

In a statement, acting Navy Secretary Sean Stackley said, "We are all deeply saddened by the tragic loss of our fellow shipmates".

The U.S. Navy said the collision happened at about 2:30 a.m. local time (1730 GMT Friday), while the Japanese Coast Guard said it was 1:30 a.m. local time.

"The families are being notified and being provided the support they need during this hard time".

"This was a severe emergency, but the ship's crew was swift and responsive and I can't tell you how proud I am of the crew for what they did to save the ship", Aucoin said.

While photos showed serious damage above the waterline, the container ship also did severe damage below it. Navy divers had recovered the bodies after the severely damaged Fitzgerald returned to the fleet's home in Yokosuka, Japan, on Saturday with assistance from tug boats. He said the area of the ship that was struck and the timing of the accident make the response more hard.

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Three people were medically evacuated to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Yokosuka after the collision, including the ship's commanding officer, Bryce Benson, who was reported to be in stable condition, the Navy said. "All of our thoughts and prayers are with the Fitzgerald crew and their families", said Adm. John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations. Aucoin said the crash left a big hole below the water line. The Fitzgerald navigated back to port on Saturday evening, registering approximately 5 degrees, as stated by a Navy spokesman in Yokosuka.

Japan's coastguard is conducting an investigation into the accident - including interviewing the container ship's Filipino crew - although the USA has primary jurisdiction in probing accidents involving military personnel.

There have been several collisions involving large vessels in the area over the past five years, Japan's Asahi newspaper said.

The ACX Crystal sailed into Tokyo Saturday afternoon with minor damage to its bow.

Aucoin would not speculate on how the accident occurred, but said there would be multiple investigations into the collision, including one by the Navy's Judge Advocate General and one by the US Coast Guard.

The ACX Crystal had 20 crew Filipino crew members aboard and there were no injuries on that vessel, a Japanese Coast Guard official said.

Aucoin declined to say what might be to blame for the accident, the cause of which is being investigated. It was built in 2008 and is about 730 feet long.

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