YOKOSUKA, Japan — In the dark of night the weather was clear, with a swell of about 6 feet.
Near where the sea lanes converge for the run into Tokyo Bay, the USS Fitzgerald was on a routine mission, though in these waters, mariners say, routine should mean taking extra precautions, always.
One of the Navy's most advanced ships, the Aegis-guided missile destroyer was equipped with the latest and most sophisticated radar equipment. On board the 8,315-ton vessel was a crew of 300. On the bridge, a full complement of officers and men was on duty. The commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, was in his cabin, on the starboard side. It was about 2 a.m.
Just offshore from a town called Shimoda, on a peninsula that guards the western entrance to the Sagami Sea, a container ship, the Philippine-flagged ACX Crystal, was sailing eastbound from the port of Nagoya toward Tokyo. Four hundred ships a day sail through this gulf toward Japan's biggest port, where the traffic, the scattering of islands, and the lights on land can make navigation extremely difficult. This is a place where vessels — night and day — must take especial care to follow the established rules of the road and steer clear of each other.
Now, early Saturday morning, the Crystal — for reasons that are still not explained — swung around 180 degrees in that busy waterway and doubled back on its course, heading nearly due west.
Minutes later, just before 2:20 a.m., the much larger container ship hit the American warship broadside, just about amidships on the starboard rail. The freighter punched a wide hole into the Fitzgerald, breaching two compartments below the waterline where there were berths for 116 sailors, as well as a machinery room.
A "tremendous" amount of water flooded through the huge gash, in the words of Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander of the 7th Fleet. Sailors asleep in their berths woke to a powerful torrent of seawater.
"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," Aucoin said Sunday at the Yokosuka naval base, 50 miles northeast of the collision site. Gesturing to the destroyer, now docked behind him as pumps continued to bring water up out of the hull, he added, "They had to fight this ship to keep it above the surface. It was traumatic."
The collision crumpled parts of the ship above decks, too. Benson was severely injured, with a head wound, when his cabin was destroyed.
"He's lucky to be alive," Aucoin said.
The Navy identified the seven sailors who died in the collision as Gunner's Mate Seaman Dakota Kyle Rigsby, 19, of Palmyra, Va.; Yeoman 3rd Class Shingo Alexander Douglass, 25, of San Diego; Sonar Technician 3rd Class Ngoc T. Truong Huynh, 25, of Oakville, Conn.; Gunner's Mate 2nd Class Noe Hernandez, 26, of Weslaco, Texas; Fire Controlman 2nd Class Carlosvictor Ganzon Sibayan, 23, of Chula Vista, Calif.; Personnel Specialist 1st Class Xavier Alec Martin, 24, of Halethorpe, Md.; and Fire Controlman 1st Class Gary Leo Rehm Jr., 37, of Elyria, Ohio
When two vessels converge, the one having the other to starboard (or to the right) is required to yield. That suggests that the Crystal had the right of way over the Fitzgerald, which was struck on the starboard side, but the specific details of their collision have not been fully investigated.
The container ship is nearly four times the size of the destroyer, and considerably more cumbersome. The warship is designed to be fast and agile.
"We just don't expect a very capable warship to be so badly damaged in a normal, peacetime environment," said Patrick Cronin, head of the Asia-Pacific program at the Center for a New American Security.
But mariners don't expect heavy freighters to turn around in the middle of a busy seaway, either.
In some ways, Cronin said, it didn't matter who had right of way in this case.
"In my mind, our destroyer is a more capable, agile ship, so regardless of who has right of way, our ship should be able to take evasive action," he said.
Because of the hour when the collision happened, many sailors were sleeping, but a normal bridge crew was on duty, Aucoin said. There was no indication of any problem with the navigational equipment, he said.
Photos from the scene showed scrapes to the port side of the Crystal's bow. The ship is operated by Nippon Yusen K.K., a Japanese shipping company, and all 20 crew members were reported unharmed.
U.S. and Japanese investigations are under way to determine how a technologically advanced U.S. warship was not able to avoid the container ship. Aucoin said he would not speculate on how long they would take to get to the bottom of what happened.
Benson was the first to be evacuated from the damaged vessel and is being treated at the U.S. naval hospital at Yokosuka. He was awake but not yet able to answer questions.
Two others were airlifted off the ship and treated in the hospital for lacerations and bruises.
Collisions at sea have become rare in recent decades as navigational technology has improved.
The Fitzgerald is part of the Yokosuka-based naval group that includes the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, but it was operating independently of the carrier when the collision occurred.