June 19, 2017 9:46 pm JST

Focus shifts to hows and whys of deadly US destroyer collision

Navy's investigation may not provide quick answers

KENTARO IWAMOTO, Nikkei staff writer

The damaged USS Fitzgerald at the Yokosuka naval base, near Tokyo, on June 18

TOKYO -- Investigations into Saturday's collision between an American destroyer and a Philippine containership are intensifying, after the U.S. Navy confirmed the deaths of seven crew members.

The collision occurred around 1:30 a.m. south of Tokyo Bay, according to the Japan Coast Guard. The weather was clear. At this point, the key unanswered questions are: How did it happen? And why was the damage to the warship so severe?

According to a report by The Nikkei, the damage to the USS Fitzgerald suggests the American vessel was hit from the starboard quarter -- the right rear. A member of the containership's crew argued it hit the destroyer while navigating in parallel with it, the report said.

The destroyer had "extensive damage and flooding" after the crash, U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander of the 7th Fleet, told reporters on Sunday at the Yokosuka naval base near Tokyo. "The ship suffered severe damage, rapidly flooding three large compartments that included one machinery room and two berthing areas for 116 crew."

The Navy on Monday said it had found the remains of all seven missing crew members, who ranged in age from 19 to 37. Their bodies were located in the flooded berthing compartments.

Now, the Navy and the Japan Coast Guard are stepping up separate investigations.

The primary question is why the two ships were unable to avoid the collision, since it is standard practice for navigators to stay aware of their surroundings. "Both ships should have checked with eyes and radars," Noboru Yamaguchi, a military commentator with Japan's Sasakawa Peace Foundation, told the Nikkei Asian Review. 

Yamaguchi explained a crucial point will be the positions of the ships before impact. This will determine which vessel had the right of way at the time, though he added, "It is possible for two ships to collide when both sides think they can cross each other."

As for the extent of the damage, experts said the destroyer is not necessarily as tough as it appears to the untrained eye. 

"Even though it is an Aegis warship, the strength of its body is not so different from a normal commercial ship," said Tetsuo Kotani, an expert on maritime security at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. He said naval ships typically have lightweight hulls to maximize maneuverability.

Kotani said the Fitzgerald was hit on its "softest part," the bottom, by the container ship's hardest part, the bow.

The Philippine ship is a roughly 29,000-ton vessel measuring 222.6 meters long, dwarfing the Fitzgerald's 8,315 tons and 154 meters.

At Sunday's news conference, Aucoin said, "The U.S. Coast Guard is to take the lead on the marine casualty investigation." He said he would not speculate on how long the probes will last.

Kotani said the investigation by the U.S. side alone may take a long time, given the possibility of a court martial. "The Navy will publicize the investigation results in the end, but there is no way of knowing when that will happen."

Under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, the case will be primarily handled by the U.S. side. Kotani said getting quick word on the cause of the crash will depend on "whether the Navy cooperates with Japan's investigation."

The Navy on Monday said John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, will visit the Yokosuka base on Tuesday, where the destroyer was towed after the incident. This may shed some light on how the Navy intends to proceed.

Get Insights on Asia In Your Inbox

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Get your first month for $0.99

Redeemable only through the Subscribe button below

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.