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[Updated] Body Found in El Faro Search

Published Oct 6, 2015 1:03 AM by The Maritime Executive

One body has been located by crews searching for the cargo ship El Faro that went missing off the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin, the U.S. Coast Guard said on Monday.

After meeting with relatives of the crew late on Monday, executives from the ship's owner, Tote Inc, told reporters that the ship had been undergoing previously undisclosed engine room work while at sea during its ill-fated voyage, though they did not believe this had played a role in its sinking.

Tote officials said the repair crew was working on an unspecified engine room issue as part of conversion work before the vessel was moved to the west coast Alaska trade.

Tote Services president Philip Greene said he didn't think the engine room work was linked to a propulsion problem reported by the ship's captain in his last communication.

Rescuers are no longer looking for the ship, which is believed to have sunk, and have shifted their focus to searching for survivors, Coast Guard spokesman Mark Fedor said.

A heavily damaged life boat from the ship was recovered but had no occupants, he said.

U.S. Coast Guard officials believe that the El Faro, which has been missing since October 1, sunk as it was caught in the path of Hurricane Joaquin.

Over the weekend, a 225-square-mile debris field was discovered by crews looking for signs of the Tote Maritime-operated cargo ship. Life jackets, containers and an oil sheen were spotted by USCG aircrews flying over the Bahamas on the third day of their search for the container ship.

The debris was discovered by the Tote-operated M/V El Yunque and a tugboat hired to search for the El Faro.

El Faro, a 735-foot box ship with 28 U.S. citizens and five Polish nationals on board, was headed to San Juan, Puerto Rico, from Jacksonville, Florida when it reported losing propulsion and that it was listing and taking on water.

Greene said the captain of the El Faro had been watching the storm closely and had calculated he had enough room to steer to its west.

When the ship's engine broke down, "that left him in the path of Joaquin," Greene said.

The Coast Guard is conducting its search for the fourth day and have covered an area over 70,000 square nautical miles in its effort. Officials say the search area is about the size of Michigan.

Records show that the U.S. National Hurricane Center issued a warning about the likelihood of Joaquin becoming a hurricane at 5 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, nearly three hours before El Faro left port.

Many of El Faro's crew were from Jacksonville, and there are signs of deep-rooted anger there about what happened to the ill-fated vessel.

"I blame the captain and the company," said Terrence Meadows, 36, a merchant marine junior engineer from the northern Florida port city who spoke outside the Seafarers International Union hall.

"That could have been me out there. Anybody in that union hall could have been out there," Meadows said. "My heart is broken. I can only imagine what those guys were going through. You don't sign up to die like that," he added.

Seafarers International is the main North American union representing merchant mariners.

John Kimball, who teaches admiralty law at New York University School of Law, said it is premature to say what liabilities Tote could face for the loss of crew and cargo.

But New York City-based lawyer Andrew Buchsbaum, who handles maritime personal injury cases, said that since the ship was owned by a U.S. company and sailing to a U.S. port, families of the mariners could try to sue under a federal law called the Jones Act, which holds shipping companies liable for negligence and if a vessel is not seaworthy.

"It's incomprehensible with the sophisticated weather routing technology that's available that an over 700-foot merchant vessel can be caught in the middle of a previously forecasted hurricane," he said.

Tote Maritime's Hanson said he could not speculate when asked on Monday if El Faro had a propulsion or engine room problem before it was overcome by the hurricane.

"We look forward to what the investigation reveals," he said.