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Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008

Collision laid to negligence by destroyer

Fishing boat said spotted 12 minutes before crash


Staff writer

Watch standers aboard the Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer Atago may have spotted the small fishing boat it ran over before dawn Tuesday 12 minutes before the collision instead of two, as earlier reported, Defense Ministry papers showed Wednesday.

News photo
Divers from the Japan Coast Guard on Wednesday examine scratches left on the bow of the MSDF destroyer Atago, which ran over a fishing boat off Chiba Prefecture early Tuesday. KYODO PHOTO

The detailed information about the 4:07 a.m. collision off Nojimazaki Cape on Chiba Prefecture's Boso Peninsula adds further fuel to the possibility that the crash was caused by negligence on the part of the Aegis destroyer's crew.

The documents appear to contradict earlier accounts made by the ministry that the Atago crew noticed a green light possibly from the 12-meter, 7-ton trawler Seitokumaru two minutes before the warship cut the small boat in two. Its father and son crew remain missing.

According to the documents, shown to a panel of lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party discussing defense and security issues, the Atago's watch standers may have spotted the light of the fishing boat 12 minutes before the 7,700-ton destroyer hit the Seitokumaru apparently broadside.

"On Feb. 19, around 3:55 a.m., a watch stander on the escort ship Atago seems to have spotted the light from the Seitokumaru," the document read.

It was also revealed that at 4:06 a.m., the Atago's crew realized the green light was on a vessel and ordered the warship to go full astern and switched to manual steering before the 4:07 a.m. collision.

Fishermen Haruo Kichisei, 58, and his son, Tetsuhiro, 23, remain missing and the search for them continued Wednesday night.

The new information contradicts earlier accounts by the Defense Ministry that the Atago's crew saw a green light two minutes before the crash but did not recognize it as being on a boat.

Maritime law requires vessels operating at night to display a green navigation light on their starboard side and red one on the port side so other traffic can interpret their position and course. If both lights are visible, it means the boat is heading toward the observer. Certain vessels towing objects, including fishing gear, would also have to display elevated lights seen from all directions.

Takahide Kimura, former vice defense minister, said many LDP lawmakers have also lashed out because it took 90 minutes to inform Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba of the collision.

Ishiba on Tuesday ordered the Chief of Staff of the Ground, Maritime and Air Self Defense Forces to promptly report directly to him in the event of a serious incident.

Former Defense Minister Yuriko Koike said after Wednesday's LDP meeting that the procedures for reporting such accidents have been well-established, indicating that MSDF officials failed to follow them.

"Instead of fiddling with small rules, I think it is more important (for Ishiba) to give an order (to the Self-Defense Forces) to go back to the starting point (and remind themselves) that they are handling crisis-management."

Masahisa Sato, an LDP Upper House lawmaker and former member of the SDF, expressed remorse over the crash.

"This should never have happened, and all the (SDF) can do is apologize," Sato told reporters. "The SDF is supposed to protect the public."

Former defense chief Gen Nakatani, who was also present at the LDP meeting, said the collision poses extremely important questions from the standpoint of preventing terrorist attacks on warships.

"We must reinforce the radar (systems) and the way the crew stands watch," Nakatani told reporters.

This was the first serious accident involving an MSDF ship since the submarine Nadashio, while surfaced in a calm Tokyo Bay in broad daylight, crashed with an oncoming charter fishing boat in July 1988, killing 30 people and injuring 17.

After the Atago arrived at Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, Tuesday, following the accident, the coast guard searched the destroyer on suspicion that it endangered maritime traffic through negligence, and in particular examined how its surface radar system was functioning before the incident.

Coast guard officials also questioned Atago crew members Wednesday and JCG divers examined scratches on the waterline of the Atago's bow apparently left by the collision. The marks may hold important clues as to the locations of the two vessels at the time of the collision, a key factor in deciding which side would have technically held right of way.

The collision took place in calm seas around 40 km south-southwest of Nojimazaki Cape.



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