Missing El Faro Cargo Ship Sank Off Bahamas But Search For Crew Continues

The cargo ship that vanished five days ago near the Bahamas sank in the brutal seas and high winds of Hurricane Joaquin, but the search for survivors will continue, the Coast Guard said Monday.

Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor said the 790-foot container ship El Faro, with 33 people aboard, sank last week. Twenty-eight of the crew were Americans.

“We believe it sank in its last known position on Thursday,” Fedor said. “We are still looking for survivors or any signs of life.”

Fedor said aircraft searched 70,000 square nautical miles Sunday, the first day that weather allowed an intensive search. The rescue efforts are now targeting two debris fields, one about 300 square miles and another of about 70 square miles, he said.

Fedor called the survival conditions “challenging,” but noted that the crew would have been well-trained at abandoning ship.

“We are not going to discount somebody’s will to survive, and that is why we are still searching today,” Fedor said.

Fedor said a survival suit was found Sunday with unidentifiable remains inside. He added that crews also found a heavily damaged life boat and other debris, but no survivors or other remains. The search was continuing Monday with a five planes, helicopters, tugboats and three Coast Guard cutters, Fedor said.

El Faro was caught in Hurricane Joaquin last week while traveling from Florida to Puerto Rico. The last communication came Thursday, when the crew reported that it had lost power, was listing at 15 degrees and was taking on water. The hurricane at that point was a Category 4, with winds in excess of 120 mph churning 50-foot waves.

Fedor said federal investigators would examine why the ship ventured into such heavy weather.

TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, the ship’s owner, issued a statement thanking the Coast Guard for leading the search and rescue efforts.

“We continue to hold out hope for survivors,” the statement said. “Our prayers and thoughts go out to the family members and we will continue to do all we can to support them.”

The ship was loaded with cars, trucks and trailers. The first debris from the ship was found Saturday, when the Coast Guard discovered a life ring belonging to the El Faro, floating about 120 miles northeast of Crooked Island, about 70 miles northeast of the ship’s last known position.

The company said a container apparently from the vessel El Faro was found in the water Sunday. The Coast Guard said its aircraft spotted life jackets, life rings, and an oil slick.

Florida maritime attorney Rod Sullivan, who closely monitored the the El Faro incident, said El Faro should have been retired.

“In my opinion, this vessel had reached beyond its useful life,” Sullivan told First Coast News.

The El Faro was built in 1975. Given its age, said Sullivan, the cargo ship should have remained in port. Sullivan, who never boarded the freighter, graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, served five years, holds several licenses and has practiced maritime law for 35 years.

He said in the days ahead there will be litigation. But for now Sullivan said the focus should remain on the 33 lives on board the El Faro.

“Hopefully there are still some families that will have their loved ones come back to them,” he said. “That’s what I’m hoping for.”

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