SINGAPORE: US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift said US Marine Corps divers have uncovered remains in sealed compartments of the USS John S McCain, following the collision between the US warship and an oil tanker in Singapore's waters on Monday (Aug 21) that left 10 sailors missing and another five injured.
Speaking at a news conference at Changi Naval Base on Tuesday evening, Adm Swift said it is too early to tell how many bodies were found in the damaged US Navy destroyer.
"We have discovered other bodies during the diving on McCain today, but it’s premature to say how many and what the status of recovery of those bodies is," he said.
The US Navy is also in the process of identifying a body reported by the Malaysian Navy to see if it is one of the 10 missing sailors, he said.
"We’re in the process of affecting the transfer of that body so we can start the identification process and determine whether it’s one of the missing sailors or not," Adm Swift said.
The Royal Malaysian Navy said the body was found by crew on the KD Handalan, 7.5 nautical miles northwest from the collision site. The body was brought on board the KD Lekiu and will be handed over to US officials once it is identified, it added.
Adm Swift also said he visited the injured sailors at Singapore General Hospital earlier in the afternoon and added that they are "doing well".
In a statement released on Wednesday, the White House said that its "thoughts and prayers" were with the families and friends of the fallen sailors.
"As the Navy begins the process of recovering our fallen sailors, our thoughts and prayers go out to their families and friends," the statement said. "We are grateful for the rescue and recovery efforts of the officers and crew of the USS John S McCain, the Malaysian Coast Guard, Royal Malaysian Navy, and Republic of Singapore Navy."
It added that the department of defense would conduct a "thorough and complete investigation of the incident".
TOO EARLY TO KNOW CAUSE OF COLLISION
Asked what might have caused the collision, Adm Swift said he preferred not to comment on any specifics as the investigation is "in its very earliest stages".
"I have heard of reports of potential cyber attacks – we've seen no indications of that as of yet," he said. "We are not taking the scenario off the table and every scenario will be reviewed in detail."
When asked about the possibility of human error, he added that it is "very premature to jump to any conclusions". "The danger in doing that is that we’ll miss something that is significant. But all of those questions will be part of those investigations."
Adm Swift went on to reject suggestions that US Navy crew in the Pacific were fatigued. "I was on McCain this morning, looking at the eyes of those sailors even after their heroic efforts yesterday," he said.
"I didn’t see exhaustion. I didn’t see a crew that was taking a knee, so to speak. They are manning the USS John S McCain, they are on their game, they own that ship. So that view is not a view that I see reflected to me by the 140,000 sailors that man the Pacific Fleet every day."
SINGAPORE'S RESCUE EFFORTS "EXTRAORDINARY"
The US Navy commander also thanked Singapore for providing a helicopter to evacuate the injured "so early in the process just after the collision", praising the medical care they received as "extraordinary". "The Singapore Government's response to this incident has just been extraordinary. I'm very grateful for that," he said.
The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), which is leading search and rescue operations, said it would spare no effort to find the missing crew members. It said on Tuesday that the search area for the missing sailors has been expanded to cover 2,620 square kilometres. It also deployed more aircraft and vessels to conduct search and rescue efforts on Tuesday.
The US Navy said in an update on Tuesday that divers began searching in the ship's flooded compartments, and will conduct damage assessment of the hull and flooded areas.
Adm Swift added that the search continues for the 10 missing sailors. "We will continue the SAR operation until there is a determination that the probability of discovering sailors is exhausted," he said.
"WE EXTEND OUR DEEPEST CONDOLENCES": NG ENG HEN
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said his ministry as well as the Singapore Armed Forces are "deeply saddened" at the news that some of the bodies of those missing have been found on board the USS John S McCain.
"We extend our deepest condolences to the bereaved families and pray for their strength and recovery in this time of grief," he said in a Facebook post on Tuesday evening.
"WE OWE THE SAILORS AND THEIR FAMILIES ANSWERS"
This is the second time in two months that a US guided-missile destroyer has been involved in a collision in the region. In June, the USS Fitzgerald collided with a Philippine container ship off the coast of Japan. Seven navy sailors were killed.
The US Navy on Monday announced a fleet-wide global investigation after this latest incident.
Adm Swift welcomed the review and stressed the importance of finding out whether "there is a common cause at the root of these events and if so, how we solve that".
"One tragedy like this is one too many and while each of these events is unique, they cannot be viewed in isolation," he said.
"We owe it to sailors that man Seventh Fleet and their families to answer the questions that flow from the uncertainty of what happened, how could it happen, and what could be done to prevent such occurrences in the future."
Adm Swift also lauded the crew on board the USS John S McCain for their efforts in damage control. He said they not only provided assistance to injured crew, but also set watertight boundaries and shoring to support the interior structure of the ship after its "watertight integrity was compromised".
"Within an hour or two of the collision ... John S McCain was up and running as an operational ship," he said. "It is clear that their damage control saved their ship and saved lives."
Adm Swift added that he will visit the US Navy base in Yokosuka, Japan on Wednesday to "engage" with the families of sailors from the McCain.
MAINTENANCE EFFORTS UNDERWAY
The collision between the McCain and the merchant vessel Alnic MC occurred in the early hours of Monday while the warship was heading to Singapore for a routine port call.
The warship sustained "significant damage to the hull" in the collision, resulting in flooding to nearby compartments including crew berthing, machinery and communications rooms, the US Navy said. It arrived at Changi Naval Base on Monday afternoon.
On Monday evening, amphibious assault ship USS America also arrived at Changi Naval Base to support search operations. Currently moored across the pier from the McCain, it will provide messing and berthing services to the crew members of the damaged warship, as well as support damage control efforts, the US Navy said.
Adm Swift said the USS America's damage control services will focus on de-watering the stricken warship and restoring its auxiliary systems.
He said it is unclear if the latter will need to undergo further repairs elsewhere.
"The Naval Sea Systems Command is sending a team to Changi here to assess the damage and determine what repairs are necessary," he said. "There is a significant amount of maintenance that we do here in Singapore on all our ships, but it is yet to be determined if the repair work is suitable for the facilities here."
However, Adm Swift said the focus remains on the crew of the McCain.
"Our priority here in Singapore is taking care of the crew and their families, and ensuring they have all the resources they need and are updated on the status of the ship and their ship mates."