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NASSAU, Bahamas — An intensive search resumed Sunday in the southeastern Bahamas for a U.S. cargo ship with 33 people on board that has not been heard from since it lost power and was taking on water as it was battered in fierce seas churned up by Hurricane Joaquin.
U.S. Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force planes and helicopters were expected to spend the day looking for the ship across a broad expanse of the Atlantic Ocean around Crooked Island, which the ship, the 790-foot El Faro, was passing as the storm turned into a powerful Category 4 hurricane.
On Sunday afternoon, a Coast Guard search vessel found a 225 square mile "debris field" of wood, cargo and other items, though it was unclear if it was related to the missing ship, a Coast Guard spokesman told NBC News.
On Saturday, searchers located an orange life ring from the El Faro before turning back at nightfall. Two other life rings were spotted in the water but not retrieved and it wasn't possible to confirm if they were from the vessel. A container that appeared to be from El Faro was also found, and search vessels observed what appears to be an oil sheen, the Coast Guard said.
The storm moved out of the Bahamas and was heading toward Bermuda. The weather had initially hampered the search, but conditions had improved enough by Sunday for the Coast Guard to dispatch one of its cutters, the Northland, to aid the aerial search.
"Our hope is that we can really saturate that area better than yesterday," said Petty Officer First Class David Schuhlein, a Coast Guard spokesman.
"We've got to stay positive. These kids are trained. Every week they have abandon ship drills."
The El Faro departed from Jacksonville, Florida on Sept. 29, when Joaquin was still a tropical storm, with 28 crew members from the United States and five from Poland. The ship was heading to Puerto Rico on a regular cargo supply run to the U.S. island territory when it ran into trouble. It was being battered by winds of more than 130 mph and waves of up to 30 feet. The crew reported it had taken on water and was listing 15 degrees but said it was "manageable," according to its owner, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico.
TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico said in a statement that it authorized the sailing "knowing that the crew are more than equipped to handle situations such as changing weather." It told family members of the crew gathered at a union hall in Jacksonville not to be discouraged by the discovery of the life ring.
Laurie Bobillot, whose daughter, Danielle Randolph, is a second mate on the El Faro, said she was trying not to lose hope after nearly four days anxiously waiting for news of the ship.
"We've got to stay positive," said Bobillot, of Rockland, Maine. "These kids are trained. Every week they have abandon ship drills."
Both she and Robin Roberts, whose stepson Mike Holland is an engineer on the El Faro, said they had faith in the skill of the ship's captain, whose name the company has declined to release.
"This is a top-notch captain. He's well-educated," Bobillot said. "He would not have put the life of his crew in danger, and would not have out his own life in danger, had he known there was danger out there. He had the best intentions. He has a family too, and he wanted to go home to them too. That storm just came up way too fast."