The U.S. Coast Guard said Monday that the American cargo ship El Faro likely sank after sailing into the path of Hurricane Joaquin on Thursday.
The Coast Guard has also confirmed that search crews had spotted a body in a survival suit and an empty, heavily damaged lifeboat – both believed to be from the missing ship.
An active search for survivors continues off Crooked Island in the Bahamas on Monday after already covering 70,000 square nautical miles since communication was lost with the ship and its 33 crew members. The search is no longer focussed on locating the ship.
The Coast Guard told gCaptain that a rescue swimmer entered the water and confirmed the person in the survival suit as deceased but, due to conditions and the ongoing active search for survivors, recovery of the body was not possible. The lifeboat was also not recovered, but markings on the boat indicated that it was from El Faro.
An update from the Coast Guard Monday evening said the search area has now covered more than 160,574 square nautical miles and three Coast Guard cutters will stay in the area and continue searching through the night.
Below is a video of the life boat:
Communication with the 790-foot roll-on/roll-off containership was lost Thursday morning (Oct. 1) after El Faro’s Master reported via satellite notification received at 7:20 EST that the vessel was beset by Hurricane Joaquin while en route to San Juan, Puerto Rico, from Jacksonville, Florida. The notification said that the ship had lost propulsion and had taken on water, but the issue was contained and being managed by the crew. The notification added that the ship had a 15 degree list.
The vessel departed Jacksonville bound for San Juan on September 29th with 391 containers, 294 trailers and cars. At the time of El Faro’s departure, the vessel’s officers and crew were monitoring what was then Tropical Storm Joaquin.
The ship’s last known position was 35 nautical miles northeast of Crooked Islands, Bahamas at the time of the satellite notification – received Thursday, October 1 at 7:20 EST.
Sea and weather conditions during Monday’s search include one-foot seas and 15 knots winds with unrestricted visibility.
Coast Guard assets involved Monday are two HC-130 aircraft, a MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter and three cutters – Northland, Resolute and Charles Sexton. Also involved Monday are two U.S. Navy P-8 fixed wing airplanes and three commercial tugs.
El Faro is owned and operated by TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, a division of TOTE Maritime. The sailing was authorized by TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico. The crew are qualified members of the Seaman’s International Union and the American Maritime Officers (SIU and AMO), TOTE said.
The families of the crew members have been notified.
“At this point in time, the entire TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico family is distressed that it now appears the El Faro sank at or near its last known position on Thursday October 1, 2015,” said TOTE maritime Puerto Rico CEO, Tim Nolan.
“We continue to hold out hope for survivors. Our prayers and thoughts go out to the family members and we will continue to do all we can to support them,” Nolan added.
A of Sunday night, the search for the El Faro and its 33 crewmembers – comprised of 28 Americans and 5 Polish nationals – covered 70,000 nautical square miles. On Saturday, a life ring was recovered in the search area and confirmed to be from the El Faro. Later on Sunday, search crews found a debris field covering 225 nautical miles that consisted of life jackets, life rings, containers and an oil sheen, although the debris was not confirmed from El Faro as of Sunday night but was said to be consistent with the missing ship.
A fact sheet provided by TOTE said the El Faro was equipped with two lifeboats, one of each side of the ship. The boats are open-top type (vs enclosed) and each certified to carry 43 people. One is propelled by manual power and the other by a small diesel engine. The ship also carries five life rafts that normally need to be manually launched.
Weather has hampered search efforts off Bahamas since Thursday when Hurricane Joaquin, centered directly over the search area, grew to a dangerous Category 4 storm with winds reported to be 140 miles per hour and sea conditions of 20 to 40-feet. Joaquin strengthened a bit Saturday as it moved slowly northeast towards Bermuda, but as of Sunday the storm was downgraded to a Category 2 storm with winds of 110 miles per hour.
“From preliminary data, it appears the track of El Faro passed straight through the eye of the slow moving Hurricane Joaquin about 35 NM northeast of Crooked Island, Bahamas on Thursday morning when max winds were about 110 knots and wave heights likely up to about 35 feet”, says Fred Pickhardt at Ocean Weather Services.
Coast Guard assets involved in the search since Thursday have included two HC-130 Hercules airplanes, the cutters Northland, Sexton and Resolute, and an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter. The search has also involved the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy and several tugboats contracted by El Faro‘s owner, TOTE Maritime.
SS El Faro is a steamship built in 1975 at Sun Shipbuilding in Pennsylvania and was updated in 2006. The ship is one of two TOTE vessels sailing the Jones Act U.S. mainland to Puerto Rico trade route. TOTE Maritime also has an Alaskan division, TOTE Maritime Alaska, which operates two Orca-class ships sailing between Tacoma, Washington and Anchorage, Alaska. El Faro, formerly Northern Lights, was originally built for the Alaskan trade and served the trade route for a number of years.
Since details of the incident began to unfold on Friday, many questions have been raised related to the condition of the vessel and its emergency equipment, the open-top lifeboats, the decision to sail directly into the path of a hurricane, the forecasted track of the storm and if there was pressure to stay on schedule.
TOTE says El Faro is a well maintained vessel that is classed by ABS and regularly inspected by class and port state, and has regularly been updated throughout its life.
“It is a sturdily built vessel in good condition, and meets all standards and certifications regardless of its age,” TOTE Maritime said on its website.
Earlier this year, TOTE Maritime celebrated the launch of the world’s first LNG powered containerships, the Marlin-class ships Isla Bella and Perla Del Caribe. Both ships will service the same Jones Act Puerto Rico trade route sailing between Jacksonville, Florida and San Juan, Puerto Rico, with deliveries scheduled in late 2015 and earlier 2016.
gCaptain is told that later this year, the El Faro was due to be replaced on the route by the new LNG-powered Isla Bella, while the El Faro was expected to head Tacoma to fill in for one of the Orca-class ships on the Tacoma-Anchorage route during the LNG conversions. The Polish nationals are believed to be contractors who were preparing the ship for its trip to Tacoma later this year.
Names of the crew members have not been officially released at this time.
Here’s a video from the Coast Guard’s press conference on Monday: