10 missing after US warship, tanker collide in Singapore waters

10 missing after US warship, tanker collide in Singapore waters
USS John S McCain sustained damage to the left side of its hull in the collision, which occurred at 5.24am Singapore time, leading to the flooding of its nearby compartments including crew berthing, machinery and communications rooms. Photo: US Navy
Published: 10:29 PM, August 21, 2017
Updated: 10:32 AM, August 22, 2017

SINGAPORE — A search-and-rescue operation for 10 missing United States Navy sailors continued into the night near the Singapore Strait on Monday (Aug 21), more than 17 hours after a US warship and a merchant vessel collided in the Republic’s territorial waters. 

Five sailors were also injured after the guided-missile destroyer USS John S McCain and Liberian-flagged oil and chemical tanker Alnic MC collided at 5.24am Singapore time, the US 7th Fleet Public Affairs said in a 

Four of the injured were medically evacuated by a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Puma helicopter to Singapore General Hospital with non-life threatening injuries, while the fifth injured sailor did not require further medical attention.

As of press time, the missing crew members had not been found. Efforts continued through the night at sea with Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) and Singapore Police Coast Guard (PCG) vessels deployed, while the US investigates the damaged interior of the vessel. 

“Our thoughts are with the injured and families of the US Navy crew who are currently still missing following the incident in Singapore territorial waters. The Singapore authorities will spare no effort to try to find them, and render all possible assistance to our US friends,” said Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) chief executive Andrew Tan.

Photographs of the damaged USS John S McCain were released by the Royal Malaysian Navy at 9.45am, including a map which indicated that the collision may have taken place north of Pedra Branca, the island awarded to Singapore in a 2008 International Court of Justice ruling that the Malaysian government is challenging.

Monday's accident saw both Singapore and Malaysia insisting that it occurred in their respective territorial waters. 

The Republic is leading the search-and-rescue efforts, with a total of some 250 personnel from various Singapore agencies deployed. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) sent one frigate, two patrol vessels, two Super Pumas and one Chinook helicopter, while the PCG deployed two patrol vessels. 

In a statement, the MPA said it was notified of the collision at 5.30am. The RSN patrol vessel RSS Gallant and PCG’s PH55, which were on patrol in the vicinity when the incident happened, rendered assistance, while the MPA activated three tugboats and a team of divers to the scene at 6.45am. Upon notification by the US Navy that there were missing and injured crew members, the RSAF despatched its first Super Puma to the scene at 7.39am. 

About 20 minutes later, the MPA deployed its command vessel, while another RSN patrol vessel RSS Resilience and PCG’s PH53 patrol vessel both arrived on scene at about 9am. RSN’s frigate RSS Intrepid, another Super Puma and one Chinook helicopter were subsequently also 

The MPA, which is investigating the incident, also issued hourly navigational broadcasts to advise passing vessels of the incident and asked them to keep a lookout for any persons in the water.

Apart from assets deployed by Singapore, the Republic accepted an offer of assistance from the Indonesian authorities, which deployed a helicopter to search the northern coast line of Bintan island. The US also sent its assets to take part in the search and rescue operations.

While Malaysia claimed that its KD Handalan warship was the first to respond to the distress call from the American destroyer, the US 7th Fleet contradicted the claim: The Royal Malaysian Navy ships joined the search in the afternoon, after the Singapore Navy and Police Coast Guard rendered assistance, it said in a statement. MPA also told Reuters: “The Malaysian agencies are not involved in the search and rescue operations that is led by Singapore.”

Following the collision, the USS John S McCain was berthed at Changi Naval Base, while Alnic MC was at Singapore’s eastern anchorage to undergo inspections.

The warship sustained damage to the left side of its hull, towards the rear, while the Alnic MC’s front hull was damaged.

“Significant damage to the hull resulted in flooding to nearby compartments, including crew berthing, machinery and communications rooms,” said the US 7th Fleet. “Damage control efforts by the crew halted further flooding.”

No oil spills have been reported, and maritime traffic in the Singapore Strait was unaffected. 

According to a marine traffic website, Alnic MC was heading towards Singapore from Taiwan when the collision happened. At 6.58am, the merchant ship appeared to be at the mouth of the South China Sea, near Singapore.

“Search and rescue efforts are under way in coordination with the local authorities,” the US Navy said, noting that the extent of damage and personnel injuries is still being determined.

USS John S McCain, which was escorted back to Singapore by RSS Resilience, reached Changi Naval Base after 2pm under its own power, nearly nine hours after the accident first happened. “At this point, no fuel or oil is visible on the water’s surface near the ship,” the US Navy added.

Measuring 154m long, the 9,000-tonne USS John S McCain is smaller than the 183m-long, 30,040-tonne Alnic MC.

A crew of the Alnic MC confirmed with Reuters over the phone that the merchant vessel was carrying nearly 12,000 tonnes of fuel oil when the collision occurred. “We were carrying fuel oil from Taiwan to discharge to Singapore ... There was some damage to the valve,” the crew member who did not want to be identified told Reuters via telephone.

The USS John S McCain — named after the father and grandfather of US Republican Senator John McCain — is based in Yokosuka, Japan. 

According to a Aug 19 Facebook post, the warship was last on patrol in the South China Sea in support of security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

This is the second collision between a US Navy warship and a merchant vessel in about two months. 

On June 17, the destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with a freighter that killed seven people aboard the US ship, in what was one of the American Navy’s deadliest accidents in years. Two months later on Aug 17, the commanding officer, executive officer and coxswain of the USS Fitzgerald were relieved of their duties.