Search Continues for 7 Missing U.S. Sailors After Destroyer Collision Off Japan

American and Japanese aircraft and surface vessels continued to search for seven U.S. sailors missing after a U.S. Navy destroyer collided with a Philippine-flagged container ship off the coast of Japan a day earlier.

"It's been a tough day for our Navy family," U.S. 7th Fleet commander Vice Admiral Joseph P. Aucoin said in a video statement. "It's hard to imagine what this crew has had to endure, the challenges they've had to overcome, but I'm extremely proud of their courage and dedication."

Seven U.S. sailors are unaccounted for after the collision between the USS Fitzgerald and the merchant vessel that occurred at around 2:30 a.m. Saturday local time (1:30 p.m. Friday ET) about 56 nautical miles southwest of Yokosuka, the U.S. 7th Fleet said. The Fleet said early Sunday local time that the search was continuing.

7 U.S. Sailors Missing After Navy Ship Collision Off Japanese Coast 1:57

The unaccounted-for sailors have not been identified. The Fitzgerald suffered damage above and below the waterline and there was flooding after the collision, but the ship was stabilized by 2 p.m. local time and it returned to Yokosuka Saturday evening, the 7th Fleet said.

It is unknown if the unaccounted-for sailors were still in damaged parts of the ship that flooded. Two berthing spaces, a machinery space, and the radio room were damaged or flooded, the Fleet said.

"It remains uncertain as to how long it will take to gain access to the spaces in order to methodically continue the search for the missing," the Fleet said in a statement Sunday. Divers were inspecting the damage and developing a plan to inspect the spaces, the Navy said.

The cause of the collision will be investigated, and the Japanese Coast Guard said it plans to interview both ships' crew. More than 200 sailors were aboard the Fitzgerald, and most would have been asleep at the time of the crash, the Associated Press reported.

Image: US Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald returns to Yokosuka Naval Base
With the help of tugboats, the damaged U.S. Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald returns to Yokosuka Naval Base after its collision with the container ship ACX Crystal off the coast of Yokosuka, Japan on June 17, 2017. Franck Robichon / EPA

Three U.S. sailors, including the Fitzgerald's commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, were injured and transported by helicopter to a naval hospital in Yokosuka. All three are awake and under observation, the Fleet said. Others who were hurt were being assessed on the ship.

The container ship involved, the ACX Crystal, had 20 Filipino crew members aboard, and there were no injuries on that vessel, a Japanese Coast Guard official said.

A U.S. P-8 Poseidon aircraft as well as two Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopters and a P-3 Orion aircraft were involved in the search for the missing sailors, the 7th Fleet said.