The Coast Guard ended its search for the missing crew of the ro/ro containership El Faro late Wednesday, as investigators planned for a new search of the deep sea floor to find the wreck.
Now the National Transportation Safety Board will take the lead in determining what sank the 75’x95’ TOTE Maritime cargo and car carrier that was enroute from Jacksonville, Fla., to San Juan, Puerto Rico, when it was overtaken Thursday by hurricane Joaquin with winds of 140 knots and seas 50’ high.
“Saturday was the first time we could even get to that last known position” east of the Bahamas, said Capt. Mark Fedor, who headed the Coast Guard search operation.
The search in the air and on cutters was intense, with all hands including cooks and engineers taking up optics and night vision to scan the sea surface, Fedor said at a Wednesday press conference.
“They did all they could in this search effort,” Fedor said. “It meant a lot to them…I hope the families can take some small measure of peace from that.”
One of the few facts known at the early stage of the investigation is that the ship lost propulsion as the captain reported, said NTSB vice chair Bella Dinh-Zarr. The NTSB will lead the investigation, with parties to the inquiry including the Coast Guard, TOTE, and the American Bureau of Shipping, which inspected and issued certifications for the El Faro.
Ocean depths extend to 15,000’ in the search area. Remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, will be used to examine the wreck if it is found, Dinh-Zarr said.
The loss of 33 mariners on the Jones Act freighter is keenly felt in the close-knit workboat and shipping industry, and that extends into the Coast Guard, Fedor said.
One worker at the Coast Guard’s Baltimore yard knew one of El Faro‘s younger crewman, Fedor said: “Saw him come home as a baby, saw him grow up, saw him go off on El Faro. So those type of things make it very personal as we search.”
President Obama issued a statement on the El Faro Wednesday evening:
“This tragedy also reminds us that most of the goods and products we rely on every day still move by sea. As Americans, our economic prosperity and quality of life depend upon men and women who serve aboard ships like the El Faro.
“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. 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.”