Yokosuka (Japan) (AFP) - The bodies of US sailors missing after their destroyer collided with a container ship off Japan have been found in flooded sleeping berths, a day after the accident tore a huge gash in the warship's side, the US Navy said Sunday.
Seven sailors were reported missing after Saturday's predawn collision, triggering a major search operation off Japan's Pacific coast, and US authorities tacitly acknowledged there were no survivors.
"The search and rescue is over," US 7th Fleet commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin told reporters, describing huge amounts of water that gushed into the sleeping compartments after part of the ship's right side was caved in.
The Navy said it had found "a number" of bodies inside the guided missile destroyer, but did not specify if all seven crew had been found dead in the search that took place after it limped back into harbour.
Aucoin said the final toll was not being released "out of respect for their families".
However, he said the destroyer sustained "a large gash" below the waterline, and nearby crew would have had little chance to escape the "tremendous" amount of water that poured through the breach.
"It was 2:20 in the morning. A significant part of the crew was sleeping," he added, standing on the pier in front of the docked destroyer at its base in Yokosuka, southwest of Tokyo.
"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."
The container ship, the 222-metre Philippine-flagged ACX Crystal, came into port with large scrapes on its bow, but none of its 20 crew were injured, Japan's coastguard said.
Aucoin declined to say what might be to blame for the accident, the cause of which is being investigated.
"We will update you once the investigation process is complete," he said.
"I'm not going to speculate on what happened... Hopefully we'll get those answers, but I don't have them right now."
- 'Lucky to be alive' -
The 154-metre (500-foot) Fitzgerald was pulled by a tugboat back to its base on Saturday, where divers searched damaged areas of the destroyer, which was deployed in the mid-90s.
The Navy said the dead US crew were found by the divers.
"As search and rescue crews gained access to the spaces that were damaged during the collision... the missing sailors were located in the flooded berthing compartments," it said.
"They are currently being transferred to Naval Hospital Yokosuka where they will be identified," it added. "The names of the Sailors will be released after all notifications are made."
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, who is "undergoing treatment", Aucoin said.
"He is lucky to be alive," the fleet commander added, without elaborating.
The accident happened 56 nautical miles (104 kilometres) southwest of Yokosuka, 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, Japan's Asahi newspaper said.
Japan's coastguard is conducting an investigation into the accident -- including interviewing the container ship's Filipino crew -- although the US has primary jurisdiction in probing accidents involving military personnel.
"We can't comment on the accident as it's being handled by the Japanese coastguard," a spokesman for the container ship's Japanese owner, NYK Line, told AFP on Saturday.
"We will fully cooperate with authorities investigating the case."