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Missing El Faro: Coast Guard Ending Hunt for Sunken Cargo Ship

by Rehema Ellis and Matthew Grimson /  / Updated 

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The search for survivors from the sinking of the El Faro cargo ship will be called off at sunset Wednesday, the U.S. Coast Guard has confirmed.

USCG Captain Mark Fedor told reporters Wednesday afternoon that it was highly unlikely anybody could have survived six days at sea after abandoning ship in midst of a Category 4 hurricane.

"The decision to end a search is painful, but it is based on the art and science of rescue [operations]," Fedor said, adding that a person could only survive for 4-5 days at sea even in favorable conditions.

He also said the search was a personal one for the Coast Guard: a chief petty officer's brother went down with the El Faro, while one of the USCG's civilian employees in Baltimore had watched one of the crew grow up.

Thirty-three people, including 28 Americans, were on the cargo ship when it vanished last Thursday after being slammed by Hurricane Joaquin.

Related: Who Are the Americans on Board?

Deb Roberts, the mother of missing ship's engineer Michael Holland, said that although she’d been holding out hope for a miracle, it was a relief to finally know her son’s fate.

"What I find in peace is that I envision the entire crew of El Faro went down in the ship together and that is their final resting place," she said. "If they can't be with this family then they are with their family."

Steven Schoenly, brother of second engineer Howard Schoenly, said his family was devastated to be told the search would be suspended, but thanked the Coast Guard for their efforts.

Rescue teams narrowed in on two debris fields but have so far spotted only one body, which officials said was unidentifiable. Fedor said searchers had not located the ship's second life boat, but had found a deflated life raft.

The El Faro sank en route to Puerto Rico from Jacksonville, Florida — a journey that was supposed to last four days. Fedor said investigators believe the ship went down close to its last known position, about 36 miles northeast of the Crooked Islands.

NTSB vice chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr she said remotely operated vehicles would be used to retrieve the ship's voyage data recorder, which will be critical in discovering what happened and could be as deep as 15,000 feet.

The ship's "black box" is designed to begin emitting a signal as soon as it's submerged in water. The beacon will last about about 30 days — the lifespan of its battery.

The owner of the doomed ship said work was being done on the engine room during the voyage, but that that wasn't to blame for the boat losing power.

Anthony Chiarello, president and CEO of TOTE, Inc., the company that owns the ship, told reporters Wednesday that the company is doing all it can to support the families of those feared lost. "Our number one focus has been, and will remain, the family, the loved ones and friends of those on board the vessel," he said.

Chiarello did not take questions, but said the company is cooperating fully with NTSB investigators. "For all seafarers around the globe, the learnings that will come from that report will be shared … and will be used as a foundation for any changes that they may suggest," he said.

Chiarello also thanked searchers who put themselves in harm's way "in absolutely horrible conditions to try to find survivors."

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