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Hurricane-hit cargo ship El Faro sank, says Coast Guard as one body found

Published 05/10/2015

Television crews wait for an update outside the Seafarers International Union hall in Jacksonville, Florida (Bruce Lipsky/The Florida Times-Union via AP)
Television crews wait for an update outside the Seafarers International Union hall in Jacksonville, Florida (Bruce Lipsky/The Florida Times-Union via AP)

A US cargo ship carrying 33 people that has been missing since it encountered high winds and heavy seas from Hurricane Joaquin sank and one body has been found, the US Coast Guard said.

Planes and ships will continue searching for the missing crew, it added.

Captain Mark Fedor said one large debris field was spotted near the last known location of the 790ft container ship El Faro near the Bahamas.

The body, which Capt Fedor said was "unidentifiable", was discovered in a survival suit, but no other human remains or survivors were immediately located.

"We are still looking for survivors or any signs of life," Capt Fedor said at a news conference near Miami. "We're not looking for the vessel any longer."

Three Coast Guard cutters, two C-130 aircraft, helicopters, commercial tugboats and a US navy plane were searching across a wide expanse of Atlantic Ocean near Crooked Island in the Bahamas.

Capt 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.

Capt Fedor said it appears the vessel lost power, making it extremely vulnerable to the Category 4 hurricane's 140mph winds and 50ft 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," Capt Fedor said of the crew. "Those are challenging conditions to survive."

The El Faro departed from Jacksonville, Florida, on September 29, when Joaquin was still a tropical storm. The ship had 28 crew members from the United States and five from Poland, and it was heading to Puerto Rico on a regular cargo supply run when it ran into trouble. Contact was lost early on Thursday.

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, according to ship owner TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico. They have not been heard from since.

Capt Fedor said the National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard would launch an investigation into why the ship ventured towards the hurricane and how it sank.

The first sign of the ship, an orange life ring, was found on Saturday about 120 miles (193 kilometres) north east of Crooked Island. That was followed by floating debris and the oil sheen on Sunday.

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

Phil Greene, president and chief executive of TOTE Services, 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.

Mr 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," he said.

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