TOKYO – A Japanese navy destroyer and a South Korean container ship collided Tuesday off southern Japan, sparking fires on both ships and injuring three crew members, officials said.
The ships collided under a bridge linking the Japanese main islands of Kyushu and Honshu in the narrow Kanmon Strait, Japan Coast Guard spokesman Seishi Izumi said.
One crew member on the destroyer JS Kurama was slightly injured with scratches and bruises while two others were suffering from smoke inhalation, a Defense Ministry spokesman said on condition of anonymity, citing policy.
None of the South Korean ship's 16 crew members — 12 from South Korea and four from Myanmar — was injured, Izumi said.
The fire on the 7,400-ton container ship Carina Star was extinguished shortly after the collision. The blaze on the destroyer was mostly under control late Tuesday but its temperature was still extremely high, the defense official said.
Officials are investigating the case as possible professional negligence and have begun questioning crew members on both ships, Izumi said.
The defense official said the Japanese ship's bow was badly burned and mangled, but the vessel was still capable of traveling on its own. The container ship's hull was grazed near its bow.
TV footage showed orange flames shooting from the vessels in the dark.
Izumi said the fire apparently broke out as a result of the impact of the collision, with paint inside a storage room on the destroyer catching fire.
The accident occurred under the Kanmon Bridge connecting Kyushu and the western end of Honshu — the narrowest part of the strait — about 530 miles (850 kilometers) southwest of Tokyo, Izumi said.
All sea traffic in the strait was suspended for about four hours after the accident.
The Kurama, carrying 360 sailors, was on its way to its home port of Sasebo on Kyushu after serving as the flagship for the country's triennial fleet review Sunday at the port of Yokosuka. The container ship had left the South Korean port of Busan and was headed to Osaka in western Japan.
Last year, a collision between a destroyer and a tuna trawler off the coast of Chiba, near Tokyo, left two fishermen dead. That accident triggered an uproar in Japan, where many people harbor pacifist sentiments and remain sensitive to anything related to the military.
Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa quickly held a news conference to express regret.
"We deeply apologize to the people for causing concerns," he said. "We will quickly find out what caused the accident."