JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Six days after the Jacksonville-based container ship El Faro is believed to have gone down during Hurricane Joaquin, the Coast Guard announced it suspended its search for the crew at sunset Wednesday.
Now that the Coast Guard has ended the search, the National Transportation Safety Board will become the agency that investigates how this ship with a crew of 33 on board was lost at sea.
The Coast Guard and its partners have searched 160,574 square nautical miles in an area northeast of Crooked Island, Bahamas -- the ship's last known position.
"I want the families to really know how committed we were to finding their loved ones, to finding our fellow professional mariners, and really to find those who go down to the sea in ships and do work upon great waters," Capt. Mark Fedor said. "I hope the families can take some small measure of peace from that."
President Barack Obama issued a statement Wednesday about the loss of the El Faro:
"These 33 sailors were united by a bond that has linked our merchant mariners for more than two centuries -- a love of the sea. As their ship battled the storm, they were no doubt working as they lived -- together, as one crew. ... I thank everyone across our government and in the private sector who worked so tirelessly, on the sea and in the air, day after day, in the massive search for survivors."
Fedor said any decision to suspend a search is painful. In this case, a Coast Guard chief petty officer had a brother on El Faro, Fedor said.
"Folks who don't usually go to the bridge -- engineers, cooks -- did so and they grabbed binoculars, night-vision goggles and would stay up there for hours scanning the horizon," Fedor said. "It meant a lot to them."
Donald Foy, with the organization MAD DADS, has organized a prayer vigil on Thursday night to help support the families who are coping with their loss.
Foy asked anyone in Jacksonville that wanted to give their prayers and support to the families of the crew to attend the vigil which is being held at 6:30 p.m. at the MAD DADS location at 2831 Tallyrand Avenue across from Jaxport.
TOTE Maritime President and CEO Anthony Chiarello said Wednesday at a news conference that the company had hoped and prayed that all the crew members would be found safe.
"While the search might be over, our support and commitment to the families and loved ones and friends of those on board has not ended, nor will it," Chiarello said. "Our support for those families, the loved ones, the friends, is unwavering and it will be unending."
Fedor said he was amazed by the response of the crew members' families.
"Those families are brave individuals. They were inspiring to me, because so many of them came up to us … and said 'How are you doing? How are you getting through this?' I couldn't believe that they would do that," Fedor said. "It's just inspiring to see people of courage like that."
He said the search hit very close to home for all those involved.
"These are professional mariners who were lost. Those are our kin. We make our living at sea, too," Fedor said. "We've been baptized in the same salt waters, so it means a lot to us."
The search also deeply affected the employees at TOTE, Chiarello said.
"I walk in every day and see the pain and the sadness on the face of everybody who works for this great organization," he said. "As a TOTE family, we too are grieving."
Some people, like Patrick Sapp, a merchant marine who used to work on the El Faro, are criticizing the decision for TOTE Maritime to even let the ship set sail.
"The company delivering the cargo, they have a certain time and to me it seems like they were more concerned about the cargo getting there, than the peoples safety," Sapp said.
Sapp also said there was plenty of opportunity for El Faro to steer clear of the storm.
"I think they should have rerouted, or he should have rerouted at least 20 miles out if not 30 miles out or stay at the dock here in Jacksonville," Sapp said.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigative team arrived in Jacksonville Tuesday and began its first full day of investigation Wednesday.
NTSB Vice Chairwoman Dr. Bella Dinh-Zarr (pictured) said the investigation will include analysis of El Faro's safety management system, the pieces of wreckage recovered, maintenance issues and records, interviews with TOTE Maritime personnel, and the crew of El Faro's sister ship, El Yunque, which passed El Faro on its ill-fated voyage.
"The El Faro was a ship built in the 1970s. It's a steamer-type ship," Dinh-Zarr said. "One thing we're going to be looking at is how it is built, all of the navigational assistance, to see exactly what happened."
The team hopes to give the families of the crew some much-needed answers.
"We arrived yesterday and we started immediately. One of our priorities was to meet with families," Dinh-Zarr said. "It was a very difficult time for them, and our hearts go out to them. We've been thinking about them since Day 1. It was important to meet them."
The NTSB team hopes to recover the ship's Voyage Data Recorder, which will have records of bridge audio and the vessel's course and speed.
The VDR, which is attached to the ship's bridge, is designed to activate and begin emitting pings if it's immersed in water. But El Faro's VDR has not started pinging, and investigators don't know why.
Dinh-Zarr said the Navy will bring in SONAR equipment to help recover the rest of the wreckage and the VDR.
The ship may have gone down in 15,000 feet of water, but Dinh-Zarr said remote-operated vessels (ROVs) can be used at those depths to recover the VDR.
"The investigation now underway will have the full support of the U.S. government, because the grieving families of the El Faro deserve answers and because we have to do everything in our power to ensure the safety of our people, including those who work at sea," Obama said in his statement.
Dinh-Zarr said she expects her team to be in Jacksonville for seven to 10 days, but insisted the NTSB will stay as long as it takes.
She said a lot of challenges come into play with an investigation of this magnitude, including making sure all information is received in a timely manner.
TOTE Maritime told News4Jax they will be turning over all communications with the ship and details about the plans to head out into the ocean while knowing that a tropical storm, which became a hurricane, was brewing.
"There will be many legacy learnings from the NTSB investigation. We have noted our full support to the NTSB from the minute they announced their investigation and will continue our support until the minute they're done," Chiarello said.
Dinh-Zarr said they are also looking into whether the ship should have sailed at all. The process could take several months, she said.
"We will stay here as long as we're needed. We'll do a very thorough investigation, and we hope to find some answers," Dinh-Zarr said.
The final report will be made in the next 12 to 18 months, but safety recommendations could come sooner, if needed.
"All of our teams have been working around the clock to gather information and facts to determine what caused this accident to prevent these accidents from ever happening again," Dinh-Zarr said. "Our objective is not just to find out what happened but why it happened so that we can prevent it from happening again."
Chiarello said TOTE will offer its full support to the NTSB team.
"For all seafarers around the globe, the learnings that will come from that report will be shared, obviously made public, and will be used as a foundation for any changes they may suggest," he said.
Dinh-Zarr said anyone with information that might be helpful in the investigation can email eyewitnessreport@NTSB.gov. Information on the investigation can also be found at NTSB.gov and on Twitter @NTSB.