The U.S. Coast Guard will head out at first light Sunday morning to continue the search for the El Faro, a 735-foot cargo ship carrying up to four Maine residents, which went missing Thursday morning in the path of a powerful hurricane in the Bahamas.
Late Saturday afternoon, crews on an MH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopter — one of four aircraft involved in the search — located a life ring from the El Faro 70 miles northeast of the last known position of the ship, the Coast Guard confirmed to the Bangor Daily News on Saturday night.
Throughout the day Saturday, the MH-60 Jayhawk, two Air Force C-130 Hurricane Hunters and a U.S. Navy P-8 surveillance plane equipped with sophisticated surface search radar searched more than 20,000 square miles near the last known location of the El Faro, 35 nautical miles north of Crooked Island, Bahamas, Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss said from Miami.
The Coast Guard announced Friday evening that it had lost contact with the 41-year-old ship following a distress call received at 7:30 a.m. Thursday.
The El Faro left Jacksonville, Florida, Sept. 29 en route to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where it was set to arrive at 5 p.m. Friday, but on Friday morning the captain of the ship reported the ship was beset by Hurricane Joaquin north of San Salvador, had lost power and was listing at 15 degrees. He also reported that the ship had taken on water but that the flooding had been contained.
The crew includes 28 U.S. citizens and five Polish nationals who work as private contractors making “minor modifications” to the ship, according to Mike Hanson of TOTE Maritime, which owns the El Faro.
Those on board include Dylan Meklin and Danielle Randolph. Meklin is a 2010 graduate of Rockland District High School and a 2015 graduate of Maine Maritime Academy. Randolph also graduated from RDHS and from the Maine Maritime Academy in the mid-2000s. She lives in Rockport.
Capt. Michael Davidson of Windham, Maine, is captain of the El Faro and also a graduate of MMA, according to sources who know Davidson and the industry.
A fourth MMA graduate is also reportedly an engineer on the freighter.
Since Friday morning, the Coast Guard said it has been trying to re-establish contact with the vessel, pointing out that the hurricane’s 140 mph winds could have knocked out the ship’s communication equipment.
A search by air continued on Friday near the eye of the hurricane, but the Coast Guard reeled in those planes at sunset, citing the poor conditions.
At first light Saturday, the air search resumed, Petty Officer 1st Class David Schuhlein said. The U.S. Coast Guard cutters Northland and Resolute, along with a Navy ship and three commercial tugboats, also were en route Saturday, but were hampered by the stalled storm.
— USCGSoutheast (@USCGSoutheast) October 3, 2015
Doss said Saturday evening that Joaquin — which at one point on Saturday had winds upward of 100 knots 50 miles from the eye of the storm — had so far made it impossible for search crews to reach the last known location of the El Faro.
“We’re trying to get them in safely as soon as we can,” he said. “These planes are designed to fly in storms, and we train to fly in bad weather, but at the same time we can only do so much. One of the pilots said today on the phone that this is the worst anyone on this crew has ever flown in.”
Doss said the track of the hurricane “just kind of circled the area [surrounding the ship] and made a loop of about 100 miles or so. It went down and circled around it, and now it’s going back out almost the same way it came in. It’s kind of unbelievable.”
The ship’s EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) has not transmitted a signal since 7:30 a.m. Thursday, which Doss said is “a bit of a mystery. Normally it would go off either until it’s deactivated or the battery died. In this case, it pinged once, although sometimes that can indicate a malfunction or that someone hit a button.”
Family members of the crew headed to Jacksonville on Saturday, according to TOTE Maritime, which set up a website, elfaroincident.com, to keep families apprised of the latest news on the search, as well as a hotline, 844-797-2706, for family members to gain information.
At 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Tim Nolan, president of TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, said the company “continues to work closely with the U.S. Coast Guard and all available resources to locate and establish communication with the El Faro.”
A fact sheet posted on the site elfaroincident.com states, “At the time of the El Faro’s departure, the vessel’s officers and crew were monitoring what was then Tropical Storm Joaquin … TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico authorized the sailing knowing that the crew are more than equipped to handle situations such as changing weather.”
The El Faro, which underwent a major overhaul in 2006, was formerly named the Northern Lights and operated under the Sea Star Line, which has since been reorganized as TOTE Maritime Alaska and TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, both owned by parent company Saltchuck.
Law professor emeritus Vincent Brannigan of the University of Maryland College Park told The Florida Times-Union that, while he hadn’t seen designs of the ship to know if it has flaws, “It’s got all the problems of an aging ship. 1975, that’s a long time ago for this type of ship.”
In a statement sent Saturday morning to the Maine Maritime Academy community, MMA President William J. Brennan declined to speculate on crew members who may be connected to MMA but said the news “has us all extremely concerned for the safety of all on board.”