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Crews make one last push in El Faro search

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JACKSONVILLE – For six days, the Coast Guard, Navy, Air Force and commercial tug boats searched the waters north of Crooked Island, Bahamas, for any sign of the cargo ship El Faro or its crew.

That search ended at sundown Wednesday, Capt. Mark Fedor announced.

Though the Coast Guard has suspended their search for the missing cargo ship News4Jax was there as the second to last Coast Guard C-130 took off in the final hours of the search, covering nearly 1,000 square miles of the search.

The crew of that C-130 called Wednesday's conditions nearly perfect for a search. Most of the crew had already been out searching, some on Friday and Saturday of last week, saying the ocean looked like a washing machine those days making it tough.

"The first day we had almost hundred mile an hour winds that we were fighting, severe turbulence that we were flying in and it was just a completely different day," Coast Guard Petty Officer Thomas Mouw said.

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Four hours of searching at 500 feet above the ocean in what the pilot called, "One of the most high risk missions we do," ended with only debris being found.

"Today we were looking for something pretty specific. We were looking for people in the water. So if we were seeing some other kind of debris, if there wasn't anybody clinging onto it, then after making sure there wasn't anybody there we would just count it out and move on," Coast Guard Lt. Heather Majeska said.

As the C-130 searched out a predetermined area, a Navy P8 flew above, at about 15,000 feet, utilizing their technology to find debris in a wider area and have the Coast Guard go up close to see what it was.

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"It's kind of a unique scenario because we have so many assets from so many different areas so there's a lot of coordination that has to happen," Majeska said.

"It is very difficult. It comes with experience. You know what you're looking for, you know what kind of size of things you were going to be looking for," Mouw said.

The C-130 crew said that they are proud, not only of their crew Wednesday, with the search they were on, but with the searches of all of the Coast Guard crews and other crews that have been out searching and trying to find answers for the families of those on El Faro.  

Fedor said the Coast Guard believes the Jacksonville-based container ship went down near its last known position, 36 miles northeast of Crooked Island. Hurricane Joaquin, which developed into a Category 4 storm Thursday afternoon, sat over that position until Saturday, preventing search crews from reaching the ship's last known location.

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In normal warm Florida waters, you could survive four to five days, but in the hurricane conditions around El Faro, that would have been much harder, Fedor said.

Fedor said Coast Guard aircraft flew repeatedly into the storm at dangerously low altitudes, and Sunday a Coast Guard helicopter flew for 11 hours, including two in-flight refuelings, in the search for El Faro.

On Sunday, the Coast Guard determined the ship had been lost and crews narrowed their search area to two debris fields. One field of 300 nautical square miles was found near the ship's last known position and another of about 70 nautical square miles was found about 60 miles north.

"If you can picture a driving range with golf balls littered everywhere, that was the debris," Fedor said. "We put our focus on anything related to what a survivor might be clinging to: life rings, survival suits, the life rafts, lifeboats. We wanted to check each and every one of those out because that would be the best chance to identify any survivors."

The assets used in the search included two Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules airplanes and a Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, three Coast Guard cutters, three commercial tugboats and one Navy P-8 aircraft from NAS Jacksonville.

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The P-8 crew members said that for five hours straight Monday and Tuesday they worked tirelessly searching for just about anything in the ocean.

"With search and rescue, it's more of a personal mission that we are helping people that are in distress," pilot Raybon Jones said. "So we find ourselves enduring ourselves to the maximum endurance and that goes for everything."

Including bringing as much fuel as possible so they can fly as long as they can.

"It kind of gets long, but we try to rotate people in and out of the windows and in and out of the sensor placements so that they remain fresh and everybody remains focused," mission commander Lt. Brian Hansen said.

So far, only one body has been found, along with an empty survivor suit.

The crew members in the P8 said they've found life vests, rafts and other debris. Coast Guard officials also found one of the two lifeboats that was on board El Faro. The other one is still missing.

"If the second lifeboat was out there, we're confident we would have found it with the type of assets we were using to search," Fedor said. "I know that the Coast Guard, along with our brethren in the Navy and the Air Force as well as the commercial tugs that were out there helping us search did all they could in this search effort."

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The P8 pilots said they've been flying about 500 feet above the ocean, looking for survivors and debris. That's about the same height as the Wells Fargo building downtown.

"We get down low so we can see the best we can," Jones said.

Jones said weather conditions were good Tuesday, but on Monday they were a bit rough. But the crew said this type of search is what they train for.

"I was thinking this is exactly what the Navy is built for," Jones said. "This is what we were born to do. We do exercises and we practice things all day for the war times, but real-world missions like this where people are in need, we are going to go out and this is exactly what we ramp up for."

Family members of El Faro crew members said their next step is to keep in contact with TOTE Maritime and the National Transportation Safety Board investigative team, which will be in Jacksonville for seven to 10 days.  

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