U.S.-Based Cargo Ship With Crew of 33 Sank in Storm

New York Times – by LIZETTE ALVAREZ and RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA

MIAMI — Coast Guard officials said Monday that they believed a cargo ship that went missing in the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin had sunk.

Coast Guard aircraft continued on Monday to search for survivors of the ship, El Faro, a day after finding a large amount of debris floating near its last known position.  

Crew members’ families told WTLV television of Jacksonville, Fla., that the Coast Guard had informed them that El Faro had sunk, and that one body had been recovered.

The Coast Guard said Sunday that its aircraft had spotted debris — including life jackets, cargo containers and an oil slick — northeast of Crooked Islands, the Bahamas, where El Faro was last reported on Thursday. Officials said they could not be sure that the debris was from El Faro, but among the items recovered over the weekend was a life ring bearing the ship’s name.

The Coast Guard said its aircraft had so far searched an area of 70,000 square miles, and it sent HC-130 search planes back to the area Monday morning.

Early Thursday morning, crew members aboard El Faro reported that the ship had lost propulsion and had taken on water. TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, the owner of the 790-foot-long ship, reported that it lost contact with El Faro at 7:20 a.m. Thursday.

The ship had a crew of 33, including 28 Americans and five Polish citizens.

For days, the effort was mostly fruitless, even as rescuers searched more than 30,000 square miles. On Saturday, Coast Guard officials recovered a life ring from El Faro, but the ship remained out of contact and out of sight. TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, said in a statement Saturday that the discovery of the life preserver “reflects that the ship was caught in rough seas and extreme weather” but that it was “in no way indicative of the ship’s fate.”

Relatives of crew members had gathered at a union hall in Jacksonville in recent days to await news of the American-flagged ship’s status.

Coast Guard officials repeatedly said that weather conditions hampered their search, which included airplanes and helicopters. Pilots said they flew in winds that were sometimes in excess of 115 miles an hour, and they reported swells that were more than 40 feet. In a video released by the Coast Guard, a lieutenant who flew one of the search planes said Saturday produced “the most challenging weather conditions anyone on our crew had ever flown in.”

El Faro’s owner said the ship left Jacksonville for San Juan, P.R., on Sept. 29, when Joaquin was still a tropical storm. But Joaquin soon became more intense, and by Thursday, morning when El Faro lost contact with the shore, the hurricane was a Category 3 storm, with winds of up to 120 miles per hour.

El Faro’s cargo included nearly 400 containers and about 300 trailers and cars, the ship’s owner said.

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