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Debris Found in Search for Missing Cargo Ship ‘El Faro’

Mike Schuler
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October 4, 2015

is shown in this 2006 photo provided by Tote Maritime in Jacksonville, Florida, October 2, 2015. Tote Maritime


Update (Monday, Oct. 5, 2015) – The U.S. Coast Guard has concluded that the American cargo El Faro likely sank in Hurricane Joaquin. A search for its 33 crewmembers continues Monday. One body has been found in the water. A heavily damaged lifeboat was also spotted. Monday Updates here: El Faro Likely Sank in Hurricane

Update (Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015) – The search for El Faro and its 33 crewmembers continued into Sunday night off Crooked Island in the Bahamas after covering 70,000 square nautical miles since Thursday. Two Coast Guard cutters were expected to stay in the area and search through the night as downgraded Hurricane Joaquin continued to move northeast towards Bermuda.

The U.S. Coast Guard said search crews on Sunday located ‘multiple objects’ in the water in the search area for the American cargo ship after it went went missing Hurricane Joaquin on Thursday.

Life jackets, life rings, containers and an oil sheen have been located by Coast Guard aircrews, the Coast Guard said in an update Sunday morning. The debris was not confirmed to be from the El Faro at the time of the update, the Coast Guard added.

“The debris is scattered about over several miles,” said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss. “It’s going to take some time to verify. The items would appear to be consistent with the missing ship.”

Late Saturday, the Coast Guard said that search crews had found a life ring that was confirmed from the El Faro approximately 120 nautical miles northeast of Crooked Island, Bahamas, near the ship’s last known location.

An update from the Coast Guard on Sunday evening said the debris was spread over 225 square miles and included styrofoam, wood, cargo and other items. The debris was still not confirmed to be from the El Faro.

The Coast Guard Cutter Charles Sexton and the Coast Guard Cutter Resolute were en-route to assist with the search as of Sunday morning. Other Coast Guard assets involved in Sunday’s search included two HC-130 Hercules airplanes, the cutter Northland and an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter. The search also involved the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy and several tugboats contracted by the El Faro‘s owner, TOTE Maritime.

Sea and weather conditions during Sunday’s search include one-foot seas and 15 knots winds with unrestricted visibility, the Coast Guard said.

The El Faro, a 790-foot roll-on/rolloff cargo ship, departed Jacksonville, Florida on September 29th en route to San Juan with 391 containers, 294 trailers and cars. The last communication from the ship was a Inmarsat satellite notification received Thursday morning (Oct. 1) at 7:30 a.m. stating that the El Faro was beset by Hurricane Joaquin, had lost propulsion and had a 15-degree list. The crew reported the ship had previously taken on water, but that all flooding had been contained.

The crew of the El Faro consists of 28 U.S. citizens and five Polish nationals.

As of Saturday night, search and rescue crews had covered more than 30,000 square-miles since Thursday, however any attempt to reestablish communications with the vessel and crew proved unsuccessful. Sea conditions in the search area Saturday were reported to be 20 to 40-feet with winds in excess to 100 knots, hampering search efforts.

The El Faro is owned and operated by TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, one of two divisions within TOTE Maritime. It is one of three TOTE ships serving the Jones Act trade route between the U.S. and Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.

“This morning TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico’s second ship, the El Yunque, and a contracted tugboat reached the area between the last known vicinity of the El Faro and the location that the Coast Guard recovered a life ring yesterday and carried out a visual survey,” Tim Nolan, President of TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, said in a statement Sunday morning.

“The two vessels discovered a container, which appears to be from the El Faro, and observed what appears to be an oil sheen.

“At this time there has been no sighting of the El Faro or any life boats,” Nolan added.

Hurricane Joaquin hammered the Bahamas beginning Thursday with maximum sustained winds reaching 130 miles per hour, a Category 4 storm on the Saffir–Simpson hurricane wind scale. Joaquin strengthened on Saturday as it moved northeast towards Bermuda, but as of Sunday it was downgraded to a Category 2 storm with winds of 110 miles per hour.

Since Thursday, many have raised questions related to the condition of the El Faro, its safety equipment, the ship’s open-top lifeboats and the ship’s passage plan, which seemingly had the ship sailing directly into the eye of Hurricane Joaquin.

A fact sheet provided by TOTE said the El Faro has two lifeboats, one of each side of the ship. The boats are open type, 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.

The sheet added that the last full American Bureau of Shipping annual hull and machinery inspections for El Faro were completed February 13, 2015, with the last U.S. Coast Guard annual inspection completed on March 5 and 6, 2015. TOTE port engineers also conduct weekly shipboard meeting with the captain and chief engineer to review maintenance and required support, while shoreside contractors provide regularly scheduled vessel support when in Jacksonville, the company said.

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. The Marlin ships are scheduled for delivery in late 2015 and earlier 2016.

TOTE Maritime’s Alaskan division, TOTE Maritime Alaska, operates two vessels, the Orca-flass MV North Star and MV Midnight Star. Both are scheduled to be converted to run on liquefied natural gas later this year.

El Faro Specs:

  • Capacity: 600 FEU
  • Length: 790 ft.
  • Max Speed: 22 knots
  • Year Built: 1974
  • Updated: 1992/2006
  • US-built at Sun Shipbuilding in January 1975
  • US-flagged, American crew.
  • 790 feet long
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