Searchers Find Life Ring in Hunt for Cargo Ship Missing in Storm

by Phil Helsel /  / Updated 

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The U.S. Coast Guard has found a life ring from a cargo ship that went missing during Hurricane Joaquin near Crooked Island in the Bahamas, the Coast Guard said Saturday.

The Coast Guard said they have confirmed the life ring is from the El Faro, a 790-foot container ship that lost contact Thursday with 33 people aboard — 28 of them Americans.

The El Faro was last heard from Thursday around 7:20 a.m. when it sent a distress call indicating it had lost power and was taking on water. It left for San Juan in Puerto Rico Tuesday from Jacksonville, Florida.

"Finding a life ring in the water doesn't mean someone is in the water, but it does validate that our search is in the right direction," Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Bobby Nash said.

A C-130 search and rescue plane found the life ring approximately 120 miles northeast of Crooked Island, about 75 miles north of the ship's last known location, the Coast Guard said. A helicopter crew recovered the life ring, the Coast Guard said.

RELATED: Families of Americans on Missing Cargo Ship Hopeful for Safe Return

Joaquin was a tropical storm when the ship departed, but the storm quickly grew in intensity and became a Category 4 hurricane when it lashed the Bahamas on Thursday.

In a satellite notification to the Coast Guard from the ship, the crew said the container ship was being affected by the hurricane, it had taken on water and was listing at 15 degrees, but crews said all the flooding had been contained, the Coast Guard said.

Phil Greene, president of the company that owns the ship, TOTE Services, told reporters Saturday that the captain reported he was adjusting course to avoid the bad weather, but there was a mechanical problem that disabled the vessel and "the ship found its way in the path of the storm."

The captain has been sailing at sea for over 20 years and is very experienced and familiar with the route, Greene said.

Swells of 20 and 30 feet hampered the search effort Saturday, the Coast Guard said. The search has covered 30,000 square miles since Friday, the Coast Guard said.

Three C-130 planes, a helicopter and a Navy P-8 plane were involved in the search Saturday, Nash said. The search was called off for the night Saturday but will resume Sunday. Aircraft were being flown at between 500 and 1,000 feet because of conditions, Nash said.

Hurricane Joaquin has moved away from the Bahamas and was moving northeast toward Bermuda Saturday, the National Hurricane Center said. Conditions in the search area improved Saturday and searchers are hopeful they continue to improve, Nash said.

"We're just doing our level best to bring them back safely and as quickly as possible," he said.

The storm was around 385 miles southwest of Bermuda as of 11 p.m., and it had maximum sustained winds of 130 mph and was moving northeast at around 20 mph, the hurricane center said.

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