Tokyo (AFP) - The US Navy on Monday identified seven sailors killed when their destroyer collided with a container ship off Japan, smashing the side of the ship and flooding berths where the crew were sleeping.
The sailors, aged between 19 and 37, were reported missing after Saturday's predawn collision which triggered a major US-Japanese search operation.
Their bodies were found a day later when the ship returned to port and divers scoured damaged areas of the 154-metre (500-foot) Fitzgerald, which was commissioned in 1995 and deployed in the Iraq war in 2003.
"The remains of seven sailors previously reported missing were located in flooded berthing compartments, after divers gained access to the spaces," the Navy said Monday.
The collision happened 56 nautical miles (104 kilometres) southwest of Yokosuka, where the Fitzgerald is based, in a busy shipping channel that is a gateway to major container ports in Tokyo and nearby Yokohama.
There have been several collisions involving large vessels in the area over the past five years and attention is now turning to the investigation into what caused the deadly accident.
The container ship, the 222-metre Philippine-flagged ACX Crystal, made a 180 degree turn shortly before the accident, according to data from the Marine Traffic website. It was not immediately clear what prompted the sharp turn.
The huge commercial vessel came into port with large scrapes on its bow, but none of its 20 crew were injured.
- Right of way? -
Japan's coastguard is conducting a probe, including interviewing the Japanese-owned container ship's Filipino crew, although the US has primary jurisdiction in probing accidents involving military personnel.
Citing local investigators, Japan's top-selling Yomiuri newspaper said Monday that the damage on both ships suggests they were travelling in the same direction when the crash occurred.
Under maritime law, the container ship had an obligation to avoid a collision if it was trying to overtake the destroyer from behind.
But if the container vessel was approaching from the US ship's right side, the destroyer had the obligation to give it the right of way, a Japanese coastguard spokesman said.
"Generally speaking, if a ship sees another vessel on its right hand side it has the obligation to avoid" a collision, he added.
The navy and coastguard are conducting separate investigations, but the Japanese side will ask for US cooperation in its inquiries, a spokesman for Japan's transport safety board told AFP.
On Sunday, US 7th Fleet commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin said the crew would have had little chance of escaping the "tremendous" amount of water that gushed into the ship after the accident tore open its side.
"It was 2:20 in the morning. A significant part of the crew was sleeping," he told reporters. "There wasn't a lot of time in spaces that were open to the sea."
"So, it was traumatic. As to how much warning they had -- I don't know."
Several other US crew members were injured in the accident and had to be evacuated by air to hospital, including the vessel's commanding officer Bryce Benson.