The U.S. Coast Guard announced on Wednesday that it will end its search for the El Faro’s 32 missing crewmembers at sunset.
Thus far, USCG rescue teams have only recovered the body of one crewmember and scattered debris. On Tuesday, the USCG admitted that deep seas have complicated its efforts to retrieve the sunken vessel which was caught in Hurricane Joaquin’s path.
A U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) team arrived on Tuesday in Jacksonville, Florida, the port the El Faro departed from last week en route to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The ship disappeared in what maritime experts have called the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than 30 years.
Before leaving Washington, NTSB member Bella Dinh-Zarr said the investigation would be difficult given that the ship sank in an unknown location, possibly in 15,000-feet (4,750-meter) deep waters. Its last known location was off Crooked Island in the Bahamas.
“It’s a big challenge when there’s such a large area of water and at such depth,” Dinh-Zarr said. “We hope for the best and that the ship will be recovered.”
The ship was crewed by 28 U.S. citizens, as well as five Polish nationals who were members of a so-called “riding gang” commonly hired to perform repairs and maintenance.
The 790-foot (240-meter) ship was loaded with containers and also with trailers and automobiles below deck, according to Coast Guard officials.
The El Faro issued a distress call about 36 hours into its journey, saying it had lost propulsion and was taking on water as it sailed into the path of Joaquin.
Tote told reporters in Jacksonville the vessel was undergoing engine room work before it sank. But company officials have said they do not believe the work was related to a propulsion problem reported by the captain before the El Faro sank.
“The contractors were on board doing some work in the engine room space, they were not performing any work on the engines,” said Philip Greene, who heads the ship management subsidiary Tote Services.
“They were doing preparatory work in order for the ship to be converted for service in the Alaska trade,” Greene said.
He acknowledged at a news conference that engine failure sealed the fate of El Faro, however, making it impossible to steer in the face of a brutal storm.
“I think what’s regrettable in this is the fact the vessel did become disabled in the path of the storm, and that is what lead to ultimately the tragedy, Greene said.