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Science & Technology

U.S. Coast Guard Continues Search For El Faro Survivors


During the height of Hurricane Joaquin late last week, a 790-foot cargo ship was lost. And now the search is on for the crew of the El Faro, made up mostly of Americans. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Thirty-three crew members were aboard the El Faro. The cargo ship was heavily laden with 391 containers up top and almost 300 vehicles and trailers below deck. The ship's owner, Tote Maritime, says the El Faro left port in Jacksonville for Puerto Rico last Tuesday when Joaquin was still a tropical storm. By Thursday, Joaquin had strengthened to a powerful Category 4 hurricane. The cargo ship was caught directly in its path. Today in Miami, Coast Guard captain Mark Fedor said three days of searching had led to an inescapable conclusion.


CAPTAIN MARK FEDOR: We are assuming that the vessel has sank. We believe it sank in the last known position that we recorded on Thursday.

ALLEN: That was in the Bahamas. Search and rescue teams have found debris in the water, including a life preserver and a damaged lifeboat, unoccupied, from the El Faro. They also found a body in a buoyant survival suit. Fedor says because of high seas, a rescue swimmer lowered into the water was unable to identify or retrieve the body. The crew included 28 Americans and five from Poland. Danielle Randolph, a 24-year-old from Rockland, Maine, was one of those aboard. In an interview with CBS 13 WGME in Portland, Maine, her mother, Laurie Bobillot, read aloud her daughter's last email sent on Thursday just hours before the ship went down.


LAURIE BOBILLOT: (Reading) Not sure if you've been following the weather at all, 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.

ALLEN: 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. In his last communication Thursday, Greene says Davidson reported the ship was listing and taking on water.

PHIL GREENE: He indicated, at the time, in a very calm and collected manner, that, you know, the crew was responding appropriately and that he had - was proceeding to dewater or remove the water from that hold.

ALLEN: Coast Guard captain Fedor says it appears the crew was forced to abandon the sinking ship in a Category 4 hurricane.


FEDOR: 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.

ALLEN: In Jacksonville, family members of the crew are gathered at the Seafarer's International Union Hall. Barry Young, whose nephew Shaun Riviera was on the El Faro, says many family members find it difficult even to talk about.

BARRY YOUNG: It's not something that we saw coming where, you know, he's sick and he's dying. No this was sudden and tragic.

ALLEN: The Coast Guard says it's continuing the search for survivors with planes, tugboats, and Coast Guard cutters. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.