U.S. Navy Tug to Begin Search for Sunken El Faro Near the Bahamas

Mike Schuler
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October 19, 2015

File photo of the ocean tug USNS Apache (T-ATF 172).


A search and salvage team from the U.S. Navy is expected to kick off its search for the American cargo ship El Faro this week which is believed to have sunk in some 15,000 feet of water near the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin.

The U.S. Navy Salvage and Diving division of the Naval Seas Systems Command has been contracted to locate the sunken ship, assist in the sea floor documentation of the wreckage, and recover the voyage data recorder.

The ocean tug USNS Apache with a Navy search and salvage team has been tasked to conduct the search. The tug departed Norfolk, Virginia on Monday and the transit to the search area is expected to take four-to-five days due to weather.

The search area has been narrowed to 100 square miles northeast of Crooked Island in the Bahamas island chain in water up to about 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) deep, the U.S. Navy said.

“Apache is equipped with several pieces of underwater search equipment, including a voyage data recorder locator, side-scan sonar and an underwater remote operated vehicle. The Navy’s mission will be to first locate the ship and, if possible, to retrieve the voyage data recorder – commonly known as a black box,” the Navy said.

The last communication from the 737-foot-long roll-on/roll-off cargo ship came in the form of distress alerts received by the Coast Guard on Thursday, October 1 at about 7:15 a.m. EST, right after the Master reported that ship had taken on water, was listing 15 degrees and had lost propulsion while beset in Hurrican Joaquin. The last known position of the ship was 36 nautical miles northeast of Acklins and Crooked Islands, Bahamas, and close to the eye of Hurricane Joaquin.

Twenty-eight US crewmembers and five Polish workers were on board and are believed to have perished in the incident.

A six day search and rescue operation turned up a life ring from the vessel, a damaged lifeboat, two damaged liferafts, a debris field and an oil slick. A Coast Guard helicopter crew also found a deceased crewmember wearing an immersion suit, but the crewmember was not recovered due to the ongoing active search and rescue for survivors.

The incident is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The El Faro is owned by TOTE Maritime and had been serving on the Jones Act route from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

USN Apache is a fleet ocean tug operated by the Military Sealift Command. The ship provides towing, diving and standby submarine rescue services for the Navy. The ship is 226 feet long and has a crew of approximately 22 civilian mariners and uniformed Navy personnel.

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