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Coast Guard believes El Faro container ship sank

| Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The captain of the 790-foot El Faro planned to bypass Hurricane Joaquin, but some kind of mechanical failure left the U.S. container ship with 33 people aboard helplessly — and tragically — adrift in the path of the powerful storm, the vessel's owners say.

On Monday, four days since 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 recovered, and the search went on for any trace of the other crew members.

Survival suits help mariners float and stay warm. But even with the water temperature at 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.”

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

Coast Guard and Navy planes, helicopters, cutters and tugboats searched across a 300-square-mile expanse of Atlantic Ocean near Crooked Island in the Bahamas, where the ship was last heard from while on its way from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico.

A heavily damaged lifeboat from the El Faro was discovered with no one aboard, Fedor said. The ship had two lifeboats capable of holding 43 people each.

“We are still looking for survivors or any sign of life,” he said.

Spotted were an oil sheen, cargo containers, a partly submerged life raft — the ship carried five rafts, each capable of holding 17 people — life jackets and life rings, authorities said.

Phil Greene, president and CEO of ship owner Tote Services Inc., said the captain had a plan to sail ahead of the hurricane with room to spare. Greene said the captain, whose name has not been released, conferred with El Faro's sister ship — which was returning to Jacksonville on a similar route — and determined the weather was good enough.

“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 was Thursday morning, when the captain reported the El Faro was listing slightly at 15 degrees in strong wind and heavy seas. Some water had entered through a hatch that popped open.

The captain, who has 20 years of experience on cargo ships, calmly told company officials the crew was removing the water.

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