Missing cargo ship with 28 Americans sank

Oct 5, 2015 11:37 AM by CBS/AP

The Coast Guard on Monday determined the El Faro cargo ship sank sometime after it sent out a distress call near the eye of then-Category 4 Hurricane Joaquin nearly five days ago.

Chief Petty Officer Jon-Paul Rios said both the Coast Guard and the ship's owner concluded Monday that the 790-foot container ship went down at some point after losing power in the hurricane's high winds and heavy seas last week.

Three Coast Guard cutters, two C-130 aircraft, helicopters, commercial tugboats and a U.S. Navy plane were continuing to search across a wide expanse of Atlantic Ocean near Crooked Island in the Bahamas. Capt. Mark Fedor said a heavily damaged lifeboat from the El Faro was discovered, but it had no people or signs of life. The ship had two lifeboats capable of holding 43 people each.

The owner of El Faro, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, has said the boat carried 33 people aboard, which included 28 Americans.

Fedor said it appears the vessel lost power, making it extremely vulnerable to the Category 4 hurricane's 140-mph winds and 50-foot waves. It had 391 shipping containers aboard, weight that could make the ship top-heavy and prone to capsizing, he added.

"These are trained mariners. They know how to abandon ship. They know how to survive in the water," Fedor said of the crew. "Those are challenging conditions to survive."

The Coast Guard also said Monday it found the body of one crew member near where El Faro is believed to have sank off the Bahamas.

Fedor said Monday that an airborne crew spotted several survival suits floating amid debris from the ship. Most were empty but one had a body. A helicopter crew confirmed the person was dead but had to leave the body behind to continue the search for possible survivors.

Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Bobby Nash in Miami told Reuters that "it's still an active search and rescue."

Coast Guard officials also said they found a heavily damaged lifeboat with the letters E and O on it. There was apparently also another lifeboat being searched for. The window for finding survivors is rapidly closing however, as even in good conditions the ability to survived beyond 120 hours is challenging.

The news comes as the search reached its fifth day, with air and ship screws scouring a massive area after a 225 square mile debris field was foundon Sunday. CBS News correspondent Mark Strassman reports that searchers in Jacksonville said they "very optimistic and we were searching very thoroughly in the hopes we would find survivors."

Authorities lost contact with the El Faro early Thursday as the ship sailed through the Bahamas at the height of the storm as it sailed from its homeport in Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Danielle Randolph, an El Faro crew member, emailed her mother last week: "There is a hurricane out here and we are heading right in to it. Category 3. Last we checked winds are super bad and seas are not great. Love to everyone."

The El Faro departed from Jacksonville, Florida on Sept. 29, when Joaquin was still a tropical storm, with 28 crew members from the United States and five from Poland. The ship was heading to Puerto Rico on a regular cargo supply run to the U.S. island territory when it ran into trouble. It was being battered by winds of more than 130 mph and waves of up to 30 feet.

The crew reported that the ship had lost power, had taken on water and was listing 15 degrees but that the situation was "manageable," in their last communication on Thursday morning, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, said. They have not been heard from since.

The first sign of the ship, an orange life ring, was found Saturday about 120 miles northeast of Crooked Island. That was followed by floating debris and the oil sheen on Sunday.

TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico said a contracted tugboat and another of its ships had found a container that appears to be from the El Faro.

The company has defended its decision to authorize voyage. Crew members were "equipped to handle situations such as changing weather," it said in a statement.

Phil Greene, president and CEO of TOTE Services, Inc., said the captain had been observing the weather patterns and discussed the weather as the El Faro passed its sister ship going in the opposite direction.

"On Wednesday he sent a message to the home office with the status of the developing tropical storm he said he had very good weather ... and that his crew was prepared," Greene said.

Greene said the El Faro has been in service for many years and was built to work in the rough seas off Alaska. "She is a sturdy, rugged vessel that was well maintained and that the crew members were proud of."

© 2015 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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