YOKOSUKA, Japan — The mother of a U.S. Navy sailor said her son kept diving to try to save his shipmates after a collision at sea until their flooded sleeping berth began running out of air pockets, while other survivors — believing their ship was under attack — hurried to man the guns.
Mia Sykes of Raleigh, North Carolina, told The Associated Press on Sunday that her 19-year-old son, Brayden Harden, was knocked out of his bunk by the impact, and water immediately began filling the berth, after their destroyer, the USS Fitzgerald, collided with a Philippine-flagged container ship four times its size off the Japanese coast.
The ships collided about 2:20 a.m. Saturday, when the Navy said most of the 300 sailors on board would have been sleeping, and authorities have declined to speculate on a cause while the crash remains under investigation.
Sykes says her son told her that four men in his berth, including those sleeping on bunks above and below him died, while three died in the berth above his.
“They did what they were trained to do,” said Sykes, who said she hopes her son, from Herrin, Illinois, can come home to be with family as he works through what happened. “You have to realize most of them are 18, 19 and 20-year-olds living with guilt. But I told him, ‘There’s a reason you’re still here and make that count.’”
On Monday morning in Japan, the Navy’s 7th Fleet identified the seven sailors who died. 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.
— Gunner’s Mate Seaman Dakota Kyle Rigsby, 19, from Palmyra, Virginia
— Yeoman 3rd Class Shingo Alexander Douglass, 25, from San Diego, California
— Sonar Technician 3rd Class Ngoc T Truong Huynh, 25, from Oakville, Connecticut
— Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Noe Hernandez, 26, from Weslaco, Texas
— Fire Controlman 2nd Class Carlos Victor Ganzon Sibayan, 23, from Chula Vista, California
— Personnel Specialist 1st Class Xavier Alec Martin, 24, from Halethorpe, Maryland
— Fire Controlman 1st Class Gary Leo Rehm Jr., 37, from Elyria, Ohio.
In a statement, acting Navy Secretary Sean Stackley said, “We are all deeply saddened by the tragic loss of our fellow shipmates. … As details emerge, we can all be proud of the heroic effort by the crew to tend to the needs of those injured and save the ship from further damage while returning safely to port.”
He thanked “our Japanese allies” for their swift assistance, and said the Navy will full investigate the cause.
A harrowing scene
Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the commander of the 7th Fleet, described a harrowing scene as other sailors fought to keep the ship from sinking. Most of the damage is below the waterline, including a large gash near the keel, Aucoin said.
“The water flow was tremendous, and so there wasn’t a lot of time in those spaces that were open to the sea. And as you can see now, the ship is still listing, so they had to fight the ship to keep it above the surface. It was traumatic,” Aucoin said at a news conference at the Yokosuka base on Sunday.
He said one machinery room and two berthing areas for 116 crew members were severely damaged from the impact to the ship’s side. Navy spokesman Lt. Paul Newell said the victims may have been killed by the impact of the collision or drowned in the flooding.
The Fitzgerald’s captain, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, suffered a head injury in the collision and was airlifted to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Yokosuka. Two other crew members suffered cuts and bruises and were also flown out by helicopter.
Conditions were clear at the time of the collision, though the area is particularly busy with sea traffic.
Container ship under scrutiny
The damage to the destroyer suggests that the container ship, the ACX Crystal, might have slammed into it at a high speed, raising questions about communication between the two vessels in an area where as many as 400 ships pass through every day, according to Japan’s coast guard. Most congestion occurs in the early hours of the day, and fast currents make it a tricky area that requires experience and skill to navigate.
The ACX Crystal weighs 29,060 tons and is 730 feet long, much larger than the 8,315-ton destroyer.
The container ship’s left bow was dented and scraped, and accident investigators from the Japanese transport ministry found further damage below its waterline. Footage from Japanese broadcaster NHK showed a sharp horizontal cut across the bow area, which looked like a shark’s mouth. Many scratches were also seen in the frontal area.
Some ship trackers showed the container ship making a U-turn before the collision, a move that has raised questions about what happened. Both Aucoin and the Japanese coast guard, however, said it was too early to determine what led to the collision.
The coast guard questioned crew members of the ACX Crystal, and is treating the collision as a case of possible professional negligence, said Masayuki Obara, a regional coast guard official.
All of the ACX Crystal’s 20-member Filipino crew were safe, according to Japanese shipping company Nippon Yusen K.K., which operates the ship.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a sympathy message to President Donald Trump. “We are struck by deep sorrow,” Abe said in the message. “I express my heartfelt solidarity to America at this difficult time.”
Jennifer Adkison of Granbury, Texas, whose 20-year-old son, Bruce Adkison, a fifth-generation sailor, survived the collision, said in a Facebook message that families are grieving for those who died and trying to get clothing and other items to survivors who lost all their possessions.
“The only other day I have been so overwhelmed with joy to hear my son’s voice was the day he was born,” Adkison said.