Sunken Florida cargo ship had sufficient lifeboats, but terrible storm

CNN image of the El Faro cargo ship.
CNN image of the El Faro cargo ship.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The El Faro container ship had more than enough lifeboats and rafts for its well-trained crew of 33 to escape the sinking vessel, but maritime experts say the winds and seas of Hurricane Joaquin likely made the task extremely difficult.

The 790-foot (240-meter) ship had two lifeboats capable of carrying 43 people each, five life rafts and 46 water survival suits, according to the Coast Guard and the ship’s owner. It’s not known if the crew could deploy them before the disabled, powerless El Faro sank near the Bahamas.

The ship, carrying cars and other products, had 28 crew members from the U.S. and five from Poland.

Coast Guard officials say the search was continuing overnight into Tuesday. One body was found in a survival suit, a damaged lifeboat and other debris. The El Faro disappeared Thursday as Joaquin bore down on it while en route from Jacksonville, Florida, to Puerto Rico.

Crew members trained regularly in calm waters to handle the lifeboats would instead likely have struggled against buffeting by huge 50-foot (15 meter) waves, a vessel taking on water and listing to one side and winds the Coast Guard estimated reached 140 mph (225 kph).

“Sometimes circumstances overwhelm you. You can do all the planning you want,” said Steven Werse, a ship captain and secretary-treasurer of the Master Mates and Pilots Union in Linthicum Heights, Maryland. The union is not affiliated with the El Faro’s crew or owners.

“Without power, the ship is really at the mercy of the sea,” Werse said.

On Monday, four days after the ship vanished, the Coast Guard concluded it sank near the Bahamas in about 15,000 feet of water. One unidentified body in a survival suit was spotted, and the search went on for any trace of the other crew members was continuing into Tuesday.

Survival suits are designed to help seafarers float and stay warm. But even at a water temperature of 85 degrees, hypothermia can set in quickly, Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor said. He noted that the hurricane had winds of about 140 mph and waves topping 50 feet.

“These are trained mariners. They know how to abandon ship,” Fedor said. But “those are challenging conditions to survive.”

Phil Greene, president and CEO of Tote Services Inc., said the captain had a plan to sail ahead of the hurricane with room to spare.

“Regrettably he suffered a mechanical problem with his main propulsion system, which left him in the path of the storm,” Greene said. “We do not know when his engine problems began to occur, nor the reasons for his engine problems.”

The last message from the ship came Thursday morning, when the captain reported the El Faro was listing slightly at 15 degrees in strong winds and heavy seas. Some water had entered through a hatch that popped open, but the captain told company officials the crew was pumping it out.

The Coast Guard was unable to fly into the ship’s last known position until Sunday, because of the fierce hurricane winds.

Anxious family members, gathered at the Seafarers union hall in Jacksonville, tried to remain optimistic, but some wondered why the ship sailed into such a potent storm.

“What we’ve all questioned from the very start is why the captain would take them through a hurricane of this magnitude, or any hurricane,” said Barry Young, uncle of crew member Shaun Riviera.

Fedor said the National Transportation Safety Board and Coast Guard will investigate the sinking. The Coast Guard did not immediately release safety records requested by The Associated Press for the ship and its company.

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