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Search resumes for ship missing off Bahamas in Hurricane Joaquin

Published 04/10/2015

A man walks his dog through flood waters during high tide on the Isle of Palms, South Carolina (AP)
A man walks his dog through flood waters during high tide on the Isle of Palms, South Carolina (AP)

An intensive search has resumed in the south-eastern Bahamas for a US cargo ship with 33 people on board that has not been heard from since it lost power and was taking on water as it was battered in fierce seas churned up by Hurricane Joaquin.

US Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force planes and helicopters were expected to spend the day looking for the ship across a broad expanse of the Atlantic Ocean around Crooked Island, which the ship, the 790-foot El Faro, was passing as the storm turned into a powerful Category 4 hurricane.

The Coast Guard located an orange life ring from the cargo ship before turning back at nightfall on Saturday. Two other life rings were spotted in the water but not retrieved.

Authorities said a container was spotted on Sunday, but it had not been established whether it came from El Faro.

The storm moved out of the Bahamas and was heading toward Bermuda. The weather had initially hampered the search, but conditions had improved enough by Sunday for the Coast Guard to dispatch one of its cutters, the Northland, to aid the aerial search.

The El Faro departed from Jacksonville, Florida on September 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 US 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 (nine metres). The crew reported it had taken on water and was listing 15 degrees but said it was "manageable," according to its owner, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico.

TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico said it authorised the sailing "knowing that the crew are more than equipped to handle situations such as changing weather". It told family members of the crew not to be discouraged by the discovery of the life ring.

Rescuers spotted floating debris and an oil sheen on Sunday. The owners said a container that appears to belong to the vessel had been found as well.

US Coast Guard said its aircrews spotted "life jackets, life rings, containers and an oil sheen" in the sprawling search area but they have not yet been able to confirm whether the debris and oil is from the El Faro.

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