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Searchers find lots of debris, no survivors

MIAMI/JACKSONVILLE – Six days after a Jacksonville-based container ship is believed to have gone down during Hurricane Joaquin, the Coast Guard and its partners have searched 160,574 square nautical miles while searching the area northeast of the Crooked Islands, Bahamas -- the ship's last known position.

"Based on the fact that we found a lot from inside the ship, that's how we concluded the ship sank," Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss said.

Two Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules airplanes and a Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater continue to search the area Tuesday, along with a Navy P-8 aircraft from NAS Jacksonville. Three Coast Guard Cutters and three commercial tugboats are also involved Tuesday's search.

Crews are flying eight to 10 hours each day, looking for any signs of life. The fact that only one of two 40-person lifeboats were located give searchers hope. Crews have also not found the ship's tracking device. There's speculation it was trapped inside the ship if it went down quickly, so it's transmitting too far below the surface for the signal to reach the satellites.

The Coast Guard said they received a signal from the device, called an Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon, before ship sank.

News4Jax stopped by West Marine, a marine supply store in Fort Lauderdale, to find out how the device works.

Al Francone, who works at the store, said the signal from an EPIRB can reach anywhere in the world.

When asked why the signal is no longer being received, Francone said it may not have left it's protective covering in the ship.

"Or it got trapped with the vessel, because it went down too quickly," he said.

Falcone told News4Jax that EPIRBs, also armed with GPS, are designed to hold a signal for at least 48 hours. But after encountering the estimated 35-foot waves and 120 mph winds of what then was almost a Category 4 Hurricane Joaquin, quite a bit of El Faro has now been found in pieces.

"If it didn't break away from the ship and the ship sank, it wouldn't be able to transmit through the waters," said Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss. "It's got to be above water usually for us to get a constant signal."

It's not known how much longer the search will continue at this level.

"We're beginning to have those conversations and discussions about when we're going to have to suspend the case," Doss said.

The U.S. Coast Guard located one deceased person in a survival suit in the water Sunday. Crew have also found a heavily damaged life boat with markings consistent with those on board the El Faro, a partially submerged life raft, life jackets, life rings and cargo containers.

The El Faro was carrying 28 Americans and five Polish nationals when it set out from Jacksonville for Puerto Rico. The Coast Guard believes it lost propulsion and was disabled at sea as Hurricane Joaquin moved into the central Bahamas.

"They were disabled right by the eye of Hurricane Joaquin," Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor told CNN. "If they were able to abandon ship and put on their survival suits, they would have been abandoning ship into that Category 4 hurricane. So you're talking about 140 mph winds, 50-foot seas, zero visibility. It's a very dire situation, a very challenging situation even for the most experienced mariner."

Fedor said the disappearance of a 790-foot ship is unusual.

"No matter how big the ship is, when you are disabled, and you're at sea, and you're in the middle of a storm ... the size and strength of that storm is just enough to overcome just about anything," Fedor said.

Jacksonville University oceanography professor Jeremy Stalker said it's difficult to imagine a ship being battered by waves of 30 feet or greater. It would be even more difficult for a ship without power, because it could not be turned into the direction of the oncoming waves.

"In terms of G-forces that you would get from going up and down in these enormous waves, there are multiple wave sets," Stalker said. "You may get up and start breathing when the next wave comes and pushes you back under."

Stalker said the one thing working in favor of the crews' survival is if they could get into their survival suits and out of the way of the sinking ship, there is little worry of hypothermia due to the warm ocean temperatures this time of year.

"If you can make it out of that first initial storm, if you are in the water, it's very warm," Stalker said. "At least that's not your first worry. Your first worry would be exposure, dehydration."

About the Authors:

Joy Purdy co-anchors the 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. newscasts with Tarik Minor and the 11 p.m. weeknight newscasts with Kent Justice.