US Coast Guard interviews container ship crew after warship collision

Tim Kelly and Kiyoshi Takenaka, Reuters

Posted at Jun 20 2017 03:11 PM | Updated as of Jun 20 2017 03:13 PM

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald, damaged by colliding with a Philippine-flagged merchant vessel, is seen next to a tugboat (R) off Shimoda, Japan in this photo taken by Kyodo June 17, 2017. Kyodo/via Reuters

TOKYO - The United States Coast Guard will on Tuesday start interviewing the crew of a Philippines-flagged container ship which collided with a U.S. warship in Japanese waters killing seven American sailors.

The U.S. coast guard investigation is one of several into the incident on Saturday involving the guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald and the much larger ACX Crystal. The cause of the collision at night and in clear weather is not known.

"We are scheduled to interview the crew members," said U.S. Lieutenant Scott Carr told Reuters, referring to the crew of the merchant ship. The USS Fitzgerald crew will also be interviewed.

The U.S. coast guard, which is undertaking the investigation on behalf of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, will gather electronic data and ship tracking information from the USS Fitzgerald and ACX Crystal.

The investigation will also look into a time discrepancy in the ACX Crystal's initial report of the incident south of Tokyo Bay, said Scott. 

"There is a contradiction. It will be part of the investigation," Carr said.

The Japan Coast Guard has already spoken to the Filipino crew and is also probing the inconsistency. It is in talks with the U.S. Navy for access to its crew members and data from the destroyer, a spokesman for the organisation said.

The U.S. Navy did not immediately respond when asked if it would release tracking data to the Japan Coast Guard.

Philippine-flagged merchant vessel Acx Crystal, damaged after colliding with the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgeraldis, is seen off Shimoda, Japan. Reuters

The ACX Crystal reported the collision at 2:25 a.m. (1725 GMT) prompting Japanese authorities to initially log the incident at 2:20 a.m.

The Japan Coast Guard subsequently revised the time to 1:30 a.m. meaning the container ship waited 55 minutes before contacting the coast guard, according to the Japan Coast Guard.

Shipping data in Thomson Reuters Eikon shows the merchant ship chartered by Japan's Nippon Yusen KK, made a complete U-turn between 12:58 a.m. and 2:46 a.m. on June 17.

The Fitzgerald did not contact local authorities. The Japan Coast Guard radioed it after receiving the first report of the collision.

Many of the crew on the U.S. ship were asleep when the collision tore a gash under the waterline on the warship's starboard side, flooding two crew compartments, the radio room and the auxiliary machine room.

Maritime rules suggest vessels are supposed to give way to ships on their starboard.

When asked on Sunday if the damage indicated the U.S. ship could have been at fault, Seventh Fleet commander Vice Admiral Joseph P. Aucoin declined to speculate on the cause.

Complicating the inquiries could be issues of jurisdiction. Although the collision occurred in Japanese waters, international maritime rules, could allow the U.S. Navy to claim some authority over the investigations.

The incident was the greatest loss of life on a U.S. Navy vessel since the USS Cole was bombed in Yemen's Aden harbour in 2000, when 17 sailors were killed and 39 injured

(Reporting by Tim Kelly and Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Michael Perry)