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Coast Guard believes TOTE ship El Faro has sunk

Search and rescue efforts are now focused on finding survivors from the 33 crew members who were on board the Jacksonville-Puerto Rico container and roll-on/roll-off vessel operated by TOTE Maritime, formerly Sea Star Line.

   The U.S. Coast Guard said Monday morning it believes the TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico ship El Faro has sunk and that its search crews are now focused on finding any survivors.
   There were 33 crew members on the ship, including 28 Americans and five Polish nationals.
   In a press conference in Miami, Coast Guard Captain Mark Fedor said that in terms of USCG’s search planning efforts, “we are assuming the vessel has sunk. We believe it sank in the last known position that we recorded on Thursday” near Crooked Island in the Bahamas.
   “We are still looking for survivors or any signs of life or any signs of the vessel,” added Fedor.
   During yesterday’s search, debris that included a damaged life raft and life boat from the El Faro and a handful of immersion suits that help protect against hypothermia and act as a flotation aids were discovered. One of the suits found by a rescue swimmer contained the remains of an individual. The remains were not identifiable and not recovered as rescuers moved on to look for survivors.
   The Coast Guard said the search for survivors will continue today with aircraft and three Coast Guard cutters as well as three tugs hired by TOTE.
   The search is focused on two debris fields, one near the ship’s last recorded position on Thursday when it was near the eyewall of Hurricane Joaquin, and the other about 60 miles to the north.
   “If the vessel did sink on Thursday and that crew was able to abandon ship, they would have been abandoning into a category 4 hurricane — you are talking about up to 140 miles per hour winds, seas of upward of 50 feet, and visibility at zero,” said Fedor. “Those are challenging conditions to survive in.”
   In warm water conditions, without inclement weather, Fedor said an individual can survive four to five days at sea.
   “These are trained mariners, they know how to properly abandon ship and how to survive in the water,” he said. “We are not going to discount somebody’s will to survive.”
   Fedor noted that because the hurricane was sitting right over where the ship disappeared, the Coast Guard was unable to reach the last known position on Friday and it faced extremely challenging conditions for conducting a search Saturday, including winds of 100 miles per hour winds, 40 foot seas and visibility of less than a mile.
   Yesterday, weather conditions improved and USCG was able to scan approximately 70,000 square miles of open ocean.
   Fedor said there will be an investigation going forward that will be led by the National Transportation Safety Board in which the Coast Guard will participate. He added the Coast Guard will likely lead its own investigation into the incident as well.
   The Coast Guard said Thursday morning at around 7:30 a.m. watchstanders at its Atlantic Area command center in Portsmouth, Virginia, received an Inmarsat satellite notification stating 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 El Faro, a 735-foot container and roll-on/roll-off ship, had departed Jacksonville on Tuesday and was en route to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where it was scheduled to arrive on Friday.
   “The worst spot for any ship to be in is when you are disabled and you have lost all propulsion, you have no means to move that vessel. You become very susceptible,” said Fedor.
   “You fall beam to the wave so everything hitting you on the side. So you are looking at a 140 mile per hour wind, 50 foot seas, hitting you from the side. The vessel we know was carrying 391 containers, so it had a lot of topside height to it where the winds and waves can hit it and trailers and automobiles below deck. It was heavy, it was weighted down, and we also know the vessel had a list to it because it had some water intrusion earlier. That just increases the danger of the situation they were in to be able to survive that situation.”
   The ocean depth at the point where the vessel is believed to have sunk is 15,000 feet.

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Chris Dupin

Chris Dupin has written about trade and transportation and other business subjects for a variety of publications before joining American Shipper and Freightwaves.