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Navy begins probe into collision of U.S. destroyer in Southeast Asia, 10 sailors missing, 5 injured

The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain maneuvers alongside the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard for a refueling-at-sea in the Philippine Sea June 14. Ten of the ship's sailors are missing after a collision Monday, Aug. 21. (Reuters)

SEOUL — A U.S. Navy investigation is now underway into how the USS John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker three times its size off the Strait of Malacca early Monday morning, Aug. 21, as the search for 10 missing sailors continues.

The guided-missile destroyer is now at the Changi Naval Base in Singapore, and photos show it has a large hole in its side at the waterline.

This was the second time in two months that a Navy destroyer based at the 7th Fleet's home port of Yokosuka, Japan, has been involved in a collision at sea, and this latest incident bears similarities. Seven sailors were killed when the USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship south of Japan in June, which also led to flooding in berthing compartments.

The search continues for 10 sailors missing after the collision, which caused significant damage to the hull, flooded nearby compartments, including crew berthing, machinery, and communications rooms, the 7th Fleet said in a statement.

"Damage control efforts by the crew halted further flooding," the statement said.

Four sailors were medically evacuated from the McCain by a Singapore Armed Forces helicopter and are now in a hospital in Singapore being treated for injuries that were not life-threatening. A fifth sailor who was injured did not require further medical attention, it said.

The McCain, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, had been on its way to a routine port visit in Singapore after patrolling in the South China Sea. Shipping data showed the Liberian-flagged merchant vessel Alnic MC was also on its way to Singapore when the ships collided east of the Strait of Malacca at 5:24 a.m. local time, while it was still dark.

The 550-mile-long strait runs between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans. It is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes but is well governed, analysts say.

The Alnic is more than three times the size of the McCain, with a gross tonnage of 30,000, compared with the destroyer's 8,300.

The Navy's 7th Fleet said Navy Seahawk helicopters and Ospreys were mobilized for the search-and-rescue effort, joining ship and helicopters from Singapore and Malaysia that were searching for the missing crew.

The 7th Fleet set up an emergency assistance center in Yokosuka for family members of the McCain crew, and Admiral Scott Swift, the head of the Pacific Fleet, is headed to Singapore to visit the damaged vessel, according to a fleet spokesman.

President Donald Trump, returning to the White House on Sunday night, responded to reporters' questions about the collision by saying: "That's too bad." Later Sunday night, Trump tweeted, "Thoughts & prayers are w/ our @USNavy sailors aboard the #USSJohnSMcCain where search & rescue efforts are underway."

Singapore's Maritime and Port Authority said the tanker, which was carrying 12,000 tons of fuel oil, suffered damage 20 feet above the waterline but that none of its contents had leaked.

"There is no report of oil pollution and traffic in the Singapore Strait is unaffected," the authority said, adding that none of the crew on the tanker were injured.

Marine traffic data showed the Alnic at anchor off Singapore Monday night.

The collision marks the fourth time this year a Navy vessel with the 7th Fleet has been involved in a major mishap, an embarrassing string that has prompted the service to remove several senior officers from command.

The others include the deadly collision involving the USS Fitzgerald on June 17, a May 9 incident in which the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing vessel east of the Korean Peninsula and a Jan. 31 mishap in which the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam ran aground in Tokyo Bay, near its home port of Yokosuka.

The collision Monday came just days after the Navy issued a damning report listing errors that led to theUSS Fitzgerald collision.

The seven sailors, who were killed in that incident all drowned in their berth compartments when the container ship struck the destroyer's side.

The Navy said last week that it would discipline a dozen sailors who were aboard the Fitzgerald, including the top two officers and the top enlisted sailor, whose careers are almost certainly over. Adm. William F. Moran, vice chief of naval operations, said the sailors who were on watch in the ship's bridge "lost situational awareness," contributing to the collision.

Analysts were incredulous that a second destroyer based at Yokosuka could be involved in another collision so soon after the Fitzgerald incident.

Euan Graham, director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, called it "extraordinary" and said it would certainly lead to the asking of pointed questions within the Navy. The incident also could affect the 7th Fleet and its readiness, Graham said.

"They were already stretched after the Fitzgerald collision, and now they've lost a second frontline destroyer at an acute time in the region, with the tensions around North Korea and in the South China Sea," he said.

The Fitzgerald is still being repaired but is expected to return to service.

The USS John S. McCain, nicknamed "Big Bad John," is named after the father and grandfather of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. John S. McCain Sr. and John S. McCain Jr. served as admirals in the Navy during World War II. The destroyer's motto is "Fortune favors the brave."

Photos posted on the McCain's Facebook page showed the crew fishing and playing cards on the deck at sunset Saturday, during a "patrol in the South China Sea in support of security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region."

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