Search for missing ship focuses on survivors, not vessel

Story highlights

  • Jacksonville-based cargo ship with 33 people, including 28 Americans, lost contact Thursday
  • Coast Guard found debris field in area of El Faro's last known position in Caribbean
  • Ship company president says many missing crew members have ties to Jacksonville area

(CNN)The U.S. Coast Guard is focusing on the search for survivors after concluding the missing cargo ship El Faro sank at its last known location with Hurricane Joaquin bearing down on it.

Ninety-six hours after the cargo ship lost contact, the Coast Guard has only found debris from the ship.
There have been reports of survival suits, life boats and life rafts that have been checked for signs of life, Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor said at a news conference Monday.
    One of the survival suits contained unidentifiable human remains, he said.
    "We are still looking for survivors and any signs of life," Fedor said.
    The massive search in the Caribbean Sea has yielded a 225-square-mile debris field but no sign of the ship.
    The vessel was carrying a crew of 28 Americans and five Polish nationals when it went missing near the Bahamas last week as Hurricane Joaquin, with winds blowing at 130 mph, passed over the archipelago.
    CNN's Eliott C. McLaughlin accompanied a Coast Guard team on a day-long search flight Monday. The Coast Guard HC-130 covered more than 1,000 square miles of ocean without spotting anything related to the ship, McLaughlin said.
    El Faro, based in Jacksonville, Florida, was headed to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
    At this point, Fedor said, the Coast Guard is no longer looking for the ship. All efforts are on finding survivors.
    The search mission began Friday, Fedor said, but the storm and rough sea conditions made it difficult.
    Sunday was the first day the searchers had fair search conditions with which to work, he said.
    At this point, "for our search planning efforts, we are assuming it sank in the last known position we recorded on Thursday," Fedor said.
    The company that owns the 790-foot ship, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, expressed distress at the likelihood of El Faro's sinking.
    "We continue to hold out hope for survivors," its statement said. "Our prayers and thoughts go out to the family members and we will continue to do all we can to support them."
    The ship carried two lifeboats and five life rafts, TOTE Maritime said in a posting on its website. Each lifeboat could hold 43 people was stocked with survival rations. Total capacity of the five life rafts was 106 people, the company said.
    The fiberglass lifeboats were designed to be "unsinkable even if full of water and full of crew" according to the company.

    Ties to Jacksonville

    Phil Greene, the president of TOTE, told CNN affiliate WFOX that most of the ship's crew members had ties to the Jacksonville area, but the company has not released any of their names.
    Greene said his focus is on their families, whom he says he's been "upfront" with throughout the ordeal.
    CNN affiliate WGME-TV in Portland, Maine, said that at least four of the missing Americans, including El Faro's captain, are from Maine, and that two of them graduated from the same high school and college, Maine Maritime Academy.
    CNN reached out to the college Sunday night but did not immediately hear back.

    Joaquin disrupts routine voyage

    The El Faro: A container ship missing in Hurricane Joaquin.
    El Faro set out Tuesday on what should have been a routine voyage from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico.
    But Joaquin soon barreled into the area, growing in strength.
    Family members told WFOX they questioned why the ship sailed into what was then a tropical storm, but Greene, the TOTE president, told the station that the boat's captain felt the conditions were favorable and "was very confident the ship was doing well, the crew was quite up to date."
    CNN Meteorologist Brandon Miller said the forecast changed a lot on the day El Faro left port.
    That morning, Joaquin was forecast to be a tropical storm whose possible paths would not interfere with El Faro's route. Near midday, the forecast was still for a tropical storm, though now moving closer to the ship's path.
    At 5 p.m., the forecast showed that Joaquin would reach hurricane strength and that the ship's path would take it straight into the track of the storm.
    El Faro left the port of Jacksonville about 8 p.m. on Tuesday, according to Marinetraffic.com.
    At the time of the ship's departure, Joaquin was bearing down on the Bahamas. Forecasts were that it would be a Category 2 hurricane in the Bahamas within two days, and the Bahamas were put under a hurricane watch on Tuesday night, Miller said.
    The mother of one of the missing crew members told WGME that she did not blame the captain.
    "The blame that has to be done is on the hurricane, not the captain," she said. "The captain is looking out for his crew."