Search continues for Jacksonville cargo ship lost in hurricane

Coast Guard in Miami searching for ship with 33 crew members

By Scott Johnson - Reporter , Kumasi Aaron - Reporter/The Morning Show anchor

MIAMI - The Coast Guard is continuing its search for a cargo ship and its 33 man crew that left Jacksonville and was supposed to arrive in Puerto Rico Friday.  

The El Faro, a 735-foot cargo ship, sailed out of Blount Island in Jacksonville Tuesday en route to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and was reported to be caught in Hurricane Joaquin near Crooked Island, Bahamas.

"We are obviously concerned. It's a very strong storm," Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor said. "The concern was they became disabled right in the vicinity of the eye of Joaquin, so they were in a very dangerous situation."

The Coast Guard has been working since Thursday to find the El Faro or at least to re-establish communication with the vessel. "El faro" is Spanish for "the lighthouse."

The last communication from the ship, saying it had lost power and taken on water, was about 7:30 a.m. Thursday.

The past two days have been agonizing for Terri Davis as she wonders where her husband Larry Davis, one of the crew of the ship, might be. 

"Until they find a reason for me not to be, I'm gonna remain hopeful," Terris Davis said. 

And Terri Davis' hope may not be misplaced. Men who work on other ships and know the members of the crew on the El Faro believe the crew will be alright.

"Them guys, they're totally on board. They've been doing this for years. A couple of them guys been 30, 40 years, they gonna' be alright," ship crewman Michael Watkins said.

Local maritime expert Rod Sullivan, who has been working in and around the maritime industry for decades agrees. He's almost certain the crew is alive.

"I would be very seriously surprised if anyone has died. These ships have good life saving equipment. Plenty of warning, knew hours in advance that they were taking on water. So my guess would be they've made it into life vests, rescue vessels," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said the crew is trained to get off a ship that's taking on water with life boats that are designed to withstand hurricane forces and have communicators that should work when the storm passes.

"It's not a comfortable trip, but they can put on something called a sea anchor which will keep them facing into the waves and ride it out," Sullivan said.

Coast Guard crews flew into the hurricane Friday looking for the missing ship.

A C-130 Hercules aircraft flew as close to the hurricane as possible to see if the crew could spot the ship. Fedor said the aircraft can fly much lower than Hurricane Hunter aircraft, which fly at 10,000 feet to take measurements of the storm. The Coast Guard C-130 is flying at 2,000 feet, Fedor said.

"(That) is absolutely pushing the operational envelope of what they're supposed to fly, pushing their safety limits to try to lay some eyes on this vessel," Fedor said. "They're using a very sophisticated radar system to try to penetrate the precipitation and the wind and the sea state and try to locate that vessel."

They haven't spotted it yet, Fedor said, but they were working toward its last known position. 

Just after 2 p.m. Friday, Coast Guard Southeast posted on Twitter that an air crew was flying into Hurricane Joaquin to search for the missing ship and its crew.

Fedor said of the 33 crew members, 28 are U.S. citizens and five are Polish nationals.

ONLINE: Tracking information on El Faro

Tim Nolan, president of TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, said that when the ship sailed Tuesday, the crew was monitoring what was then Tropical Storm Joaquin. He said TOTE lost all communication with the El Faro as of 7:20 a.m. Thursday.

"There are a number of possible reasons for the loss of communications, among them the increasing severity of Hurricane Joaquin," Nolan said in a statement. 

Nolan said TOTE is working closely with the Coast Guard and other resources to establish communication with the ship, which was christened in Jacksonville in 2006, by whatever means possible.

"TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico's primary concern is for the safety and well-being of the 33 individuals on board. We are working to ensure clear and frequent communications with their families and loved ones as we learn more," Nolan said. "We have reached out to the families of those impacted and have established open lines of communication to provide them with timely updates. Our thoughts and prayers are with the individuals and their families."

Concern grew Friday at the Seafarers Union International of North Florida, where some of the 33 people on board the El Faro are members.

"I feel pretty bad that they got caught out like that and with the technology they have for the ships now I feel as though they couldn't run, to an extent, but you can't get away from the hurricane like you think you could," maritime worker Victor Sapp said. "I hope that everybody will be OK. That's my first hope is that everyone will be alright and no one will get injured or hurt on board the vessel and they continue to be able to see their families once they get off."

The union invited friends and families of the crewmen to the union hall Friday night to keep everyone up to speed on what's happening with the rescue effort and offered whatever support they could.

"They told us as much as they know. They're doing everything they can. Mother Nature does what Mother Nature does, and if you can't get in there to find them, you can't get in there to find them," Terri Davis said. "We all need prayers, that's all you can do. We're waiting, everybody's waiting, but I'm confident."

She said her husband is well-trained, and she believes he and the crew will survive whatever's happening in the middle of Joaquin.

"I'm confident. I know my husband, I know his ability. I know those guys on that ship. I know their ability. So I'm very hopeful," Terri Davis said.

Terri Davis is one of dozens who gathered at the Seafarers Union Hall on Friday to meet with officials from the Coast Guard and the company to which the ship belongs, Tote Services.

TOTE President Phil Greene was also at the meeting, wanting to speak to the families directly.

"There is really a strong sense of family and closeness that you see in this group of mariners that we're all a part of, and a great sense of hope and optimism," Greene said.  

TOTE did release a statement Friday night in a constant effort to keep the friends and families of the missing crew abreast of developments in the search:

"On September 29, the El Faro, one of TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico's two ships departed Jacksonville en-route to San Juan Puerto Rico. At the time of the El Faro's departure, the vessel's officers and crew were monitoring what was then Tropical Storm Joaquin. As of 720am EST on Thursday October 1, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico lost all communication with the El Faro. The US Coast Guard was immediately notified and since then we have been unable to reestablish communication. There are a number of possible reasons for the loss of communications among them the increasing severity of Hurricane Joaquin.

"TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico's primary concern is for the safety and well-being of the 33 individuals on board. We are working to ensure clear and frequent communications with their families and loved ones as we learn more.

"We have reached out to the families of those impacted and have established open lines of communication to provide them with timely updates. Our thoughts and prayers are with the individuals and their families.

"TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico is working closely with the US Coast Guard and all available resources to establish communication by whatever means possible." 

The Coast Guard said the ship's last known position was approximately 36 miles to the northeast of the Crooked Islands in the Bahamas.

Fedor said it's possible the storm destroyed the ship's communications equipment.

About 7:30 a.m. Thursday, watchstanders at the Coast Guard 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.

Watchstanders at the Coast Guard 7th District command center in Miami launched an HC-130 aircrew out of Clearwater, Florida, on Thursday to search for the El Faro.

Two Air Force C-130 Hurricane Hunter aircrews also attempted to locate and re-establish communications with the El Faro unsuccessfully Thursday. 

12 rescued from Bolivian-flagged cargo ship

Thursday evening, the Coast Guard rescued 12 people who abandoned their 212-foot cargo ship that began taking on water north of Haiti.

Officials said they received a message from the British coast guard about the Bolivian-flagged cargo ship Minouche. The message stated that the ship was listing and crew members were preparing to abandon it.

The Coast Guard diverted a cutter and launched a helicopter. A good Samaritan vessel also diverted to the ship's last known position.

The good Samaritan ship located the crew members and the Coast Guard crew hoisted them into the helicopter and took them to Great Inagua, Bahamas. There were no major injuries reported.

Hurricane Joaquin batters Bahamas

As the search for the El Faro continued, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said Joaquin's threat to the U.S. East Coast was fading as new forecasts showed it likely to curve out into the Atlantic while moving north and weakening in coming days.

But the slow-moving storm continued to batter parts of the Bahamas, cutting communication to several islands, most of them lightly populated. There had been no reports of fatalities or injuries, said Capt. Stephen Russell, the director of the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency.

Residents reached by relatives said they were "trapped in their homes, and reported feeling as if their structures were caving in," Russell said. "It's too dangerous to go outside because the flood waters are so high, so we ask that persons stay inside and try to go into the most secure place of their home."

Power also was knocked out to several islands, and Leslie Miller, executive chairman of the Bahamas Electricity Corporation, said the company "is in no position to do much" to restore electricity. "All the airports are flooded," he said.

Schools, businesses and government offices were closed as the slow-moving storm roared through the island chain.

Streets were largely deserted as people remained hunkered down on the island of Eleuthera, which was bracing for heavy winds later Friday. Some people were still making last-minute preparations, including Alexander Johnson, 61, who was moving his fishing boat with his brother, Solomon.

"It looks like it's going to make a turn to the north, so we won't get it in full," Johnson said. "That's good for us, because we've seen some rough ones come through here."

Security guard Patrick Bethel said he was thankful there had been no reported casualties and wasn't too worried about what the day would bring: "We just have to see what God will do. God controls the storm."

Joaquin had maximum sustained winds of 130 mph (215 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said. By early afternoon, the storm was centered about 10 miles (15 kilometers) north of Rum Cay and was moving north near 5 mph (8 kph). Hurricane force winds extended outward up to 50 miles (85 kilometers) and a hurricane watch was in effect for Bimini and Andros Island.

The storm was expected to continue north, with some weakening expected on Saturday as if follows a projected path farther from the U.S. East Coast than originally predicted.

Rick Knabb, director of the Center, said Joaquin is expected to pass well offshore from the eastern seaboard.

"We no longer have any models forecasting the hurricane to come into the East Coast," he said. "But we are still going to have some bad weather."

In addition, the entire East Coast will experience dangerous surf and rip currents through the weekend, he said.

"Joaquin is going to generate a lot of wave energy," Knabb said, adding that Bermuda might issue a tropical storm or hurricane watch, depending on Joaquin's path.

The Hurricane Center said parts of the Bahamas could see storm surge raising sea levels 6 to 12 feet (as much as 4 meters) above normal, with 12 to 18 inches (31 to 46 centimeters centimeters) of rain falling in the central Bahamas.

Authorities in the nearby Turks & Caicos Islands closed all airports, schools and government offices.

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