Nearly a week after a 790-foot cargo ship sailed headlong into a Category 3 storm carrying a crew of 33, the U.S. Coast Guard called off the search for survivors Wednesday and identified the missing crew.
Efforts will now shift to determining what went wrong on the fatal voyage. A key question: Why the El Faro, which was making a weekly run from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico along one of the region’s busiest shipping routes, raced at near full speed toward a hurricane that forecasters warned was likely to intensify as it slowed to a crawl directly in the ship’s path.
The announcement by the Coast Guard ended a grueling effort that covered nearly 228 square miles with searchers at times battling the same furious weather that claimed the El Faro. Late Wednesday, Coast Guard officials released a complete list of crew members, which included 18 from Florida.
“I want the families to really know how committed we were to finding their loved ones,” Capt. Mark Fedor said in announcing the decision at the ship’s homeport. “I hope the families can take some measure of peace from that.”
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The painful decision to call off the search was based on both the ability of any crew to survive in the open seas, generally between four and five days, and the severity of conditions when the ship sank Thursday with raging winds topping 140 mph and towering waves reaching 50 feet.
“It’s just a dire situation for anybody,” Fedor said.
The crew of 33 included 28 Americans and five Polish engineers. While crew members have not been officially identified, media outlets have reported the names of 18, with some from Jacksonville, Cape Coral and others part of a close-knit mariner community in Maine, including the ship’s captain, Michael Davidson. Families keeping vigil at the Seafarers International Union hall reacted with grief and anger.
Deb Roberts, whose son Michael Holland was a crew member, said she took solace in knowing that the crew went down together.
“It’s been six long days of hoping and praying,” she said to a television reporter on a clip posted on her Facebook page. “What I find in peace is I envision the entire crew of the El Faro … in the ship together and that’s their final resting place.”
Schmiora Hill, whose cousin, Roosevelt Clark, was a crew member, told the New York Times that the search ended too soon.
“They haven’t even found both the lifeboats,” she said. “I feel somebody, somewhere, somehow, is surviving.”
During the six-day search, three Coast Guard cutters, two C-130 aircraft, helicopters, three commercial tugboats and a U.S. Navy plane scoured the ocean near Crooked Island, Bahamas. Early in the search, efforts were hampered by the powerful storm: Sustained winds still blew at 120 mph when the Coast Guard received it’s one and only mayday about 7:30 a.m. Thursday.
Over the next few days, searchers recovered one body in a survival suit that they were not able to recover and discovered a debris field that covered 225 square miles. Among the items found was a destroyed lifeboat, cargo, life jackets and styrofoam.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board now will try to unravel the causes of the sinking. There are a lot of factors to consider. The ship was considered rugged and had been retrofitted as recently as 2006, but at 40 years old, it had been at sea double the amount of a standard service life. And while cargo vessels are capable of tackling terrible weather conditions, common practice is to avoid hurricanes — El Faro stayed to a course that took it directly toward a worsening one.
There also are questions about why and when it lost power, took on water and begin listing at 15 degrees — all adding to the challenges of a captain and crew trying to make headway through pounding seas.
“Our objective is not just to find out what happened, but why it happened so as to prevent it from ever happening again,” NTSB Vice Chairman T. Bella Dinh-Zarr said during the Wednesday news conference.
The NTSB investigation team, which arrived in Jacksonville on Tuesday, will remain seven to 10 days, and “is already interviewing off rotation crew members, pouring over documents and reviewing recovered wreckage.” Other team members are examining El Faro’s sister ship, El Junque.
The agency also is working with the Coast Guard, TOTE Inc.— the company that owns the ship — and the American Bureau of Shipping to review “every aspect of this tragedy.”
Among the items investigators hope to recover is the ship’s voyage data recorder, which contains audio recordings from the bridge and basic navigational information such as speed and direction. The recordings could be key to reconstructing the mysterious last 12 hours of the doomed ship.
Specialized Navy equipment will be used to find the device that turns on when wet and sends out a signal announcing its location. The equipment should be able to withstand the high pressure of the 15,000-feet-deep water where El Faro capsized, and retrieve the VDR.
Anthony Chiarello, president and CEO of TOTE, said the company would cooperate with the investigation.
“Learning will be shared and made public and used as a foundation for any changes they suggest,” he said.
Chiarello reiterated the company’s sorrow, and said that their support for the affected families is “unwavering, unending and it will never, ever stop.”
From the White House, President Barack Obama thanked searchers for their tireless efforts and vowed to support investigators.
“The investigation now underway will have the full support of the U.S. government, because the grieving families of the El Faro deserve answers and because we have to do everything in our power to ensure the safety of our people, including those who work at sea,” he said in a statement.