Updated 5:30 p.m. ET
Extinguishing hope that the cargo ship that went missing near the Bahamas could have survived a Thursday encounter with Hurricane Joaquin, the Coast Guard announced Monday that the ship, El Faro, sank, according to the Associated Press. The Coast Guard also found an unidentified body of one crew member.
Several “survival suits” were spotted floating in the water, one of which contained the body. In addition, an empty, heavily damaged lifeboat was found.
Barry Young of Jacksonville, Fla., whose grand-nephew, Shawn Riviera, was a crew member on El Faro, said his family is tempering their hope that Riviera could be alive with the reality of the situation. He spoke with Jessica Palombo of WJCT, Jacksonville’s NPR member station.
“The Coast Guard did say that they are still seeing debris. They’ve found other survival suits, they called them gummy suits, so they’re trying to find each and every one to make sure there’s not a person in that suit who’s alive, who they can rescue and take back to their families,” Young said, adding that the Coast Guard is now adding vessels to the search. “It does give you hope, but to be honest with you, the reality of it, we don’t see it as coming out any other way than tragic.”
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor told the media that the search has shifted from finding the vessel to rescuing passengers who may still be alive.
“We are still looking for survivors or any signs of life,” he said. “The search for survivors continues.”
The ship, owned by Tote Maritime, set out from Jacksonville, Fla., on Sept. 29 laden with commercial goods and 33 crew members — 28 Americans and five from Poland. On Thursday, the ship lost power and communication and began to take on water as it passed an island in the southeastern Bahamas, about 10 miles from the center of the hurricane, according to the AP.
Fedor says it appears that the crew was forced to abandon the sinking ship in a Category 4 hurricane. “So you’re talking up to 140 mile an hour winds, seas upwards of 50 feet, visibility basically at zero. Those are challenging conditions to survive in.”
Laurie Bobillot of Maine, whose 24-year-old daughter, Danielle Randolph, was a crew member on the ship, said she received a message from her daughter before the ship went down.
“Not sure you’ve been following the weather at all,” Bobillot read during an interview with WGME, Portland’s CBS affiliate. “But there’s a hurricane out here and we are heading straight into it, Category 3. Last we checked, winds are super bad and seas are not great. Love to everyone.”
On Friday, the Coast Guard deployed a rescue helicopter to look for El Faro, but found no sign of it.
The CEO of a Tote Maritime subsidiary in Jacksonville, Phil Greene, says Captain Michael Davidson thought he could pass in front of the storm, but the ship had a problem with its propulsion system and ended up without power in Joaquin’s path.
On Saturday, the Coast Guard reported finding a life ring from the ship and Navy and Air Force planes and ships joined the search. The following day, the Coast Guard found large debris that appeared to include material from the ship, along with oil on the surface of the water.
Joseph Murphy, a former master of commercial ships and now an instructor at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, told Here & Now that he can understand why the tragedy occurred.
“Unfortunately, while people may think we have perfect information, we do not. When they sailed, it was reported as a tropical storm, something that ship has gone through many times in that very same areas,” he said. “What was not anticipated or known was the intensification of the storm and its development into a Category 4.”
Murphy said that one of the academy’s graduates was aboard the ship. He characterized the loss as one of the “perils of the sea.”
He said the ship “had the best of equipment, it was well inspected. The crew were well trained. They were simply overwhelmed by the force of nature.”
But for the families of those lost at sea, these words are small comfort. Young says his family is struggling with the situation.
“My family as a whole, we’re just banding together to support each other. That’s all we can do right now,” Young says.
He says Riviera was a cook on the ship and describes his grand-nephew as a “go-getter” with two children and one on the way. Young said the tragedy has been hard on his family, especially his niece — Shawn is her only child.