WASHINGTON – A search team using sophisticated scanning sonar has found the wreckage of a vessel believed to be the cargo ship El Faro, which went missing with 33 crewmembers Oct. 1 during Hurricane Joaquin, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said late Saturday.
The federal agency issued a statement that searchers aboard the USNS Apache, a Navy vessel contracted for the search, said they believed they located wreckage of the ship at 1:36 p.m. EDT Saturday at a depth of about 15,000 feet of water in the vicinity of the ship's last known position. The statement added that the wreckage was detected on the fifth of 13 surveying passes.
"To confirm the finding, specialists on Apache will use ... a deep ocean remotely operated vehicle to survey and confirm the identity of the wreckage. This survey could begin as early as November 1," said the statement released in Washington by the NTSB's Peter Knudson. It added that the wreckage spotted in the depths is "consistent with a 790-foot cargo ship, which from sonar images appears to be in an upright position and in one piece."
The 790-foot El Faro was reported missing east of the Bahamas, according to the Coast Guard.
The El Faro's captain had called in before the vessel disappeared saying the ship had lost its engine power during its voyage from Jacksonville to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The captain, Michael Davidson, said the ship was listing, and taking on water.
The Coast Guard searched for the ship for days after El Faro disappeared in the storm, finding debris and one body in a survival suit.
The El Faro was scheduled for retirement from Caribbean duty and for new retrofitting for service between the West Coast and Alaska, company officials have said. Both the El Faro and its sister ship were slated to be replaced by two new ships. Aboard when it sank were five engineers from Poland, who were working on the retrofitting as the ship sailed to Puerto Rico.
NTSB investigators said Davidson intended to pass 65 miles from the center of the storm, a decision maritime experts said was risky.
The NTSB, an independent federal agency, is conducting an investigation into the cargo ship's disappearance. It said it had contracted with the U.S. Navy to try to locate the missing ship, document the wreckage and debris field, and if possible, recover the crucial voyage data recorder.
The statement said the Navy ship had left its Virginia location on Oct. 19 after being fitted with state-of-the-art underwater detection equipment, arriving at the lasts known position of El Faro on Oct. 23.
The statement added that search experts aboard the ship first placed a special piece of equipment, called a towed pinger locator, in the water and were slowly traversing the area of the ship's last known position in hopes of picking up sounds of the pinger from El Faro's voyage data recorder. According to the statement, three days of searching went by without any indication of a pinger signal and that that piece of equipment was withdrawn from the ocean and a side-scanning sonar system called Orion was then deployed.
The NTSB said the specialized sonar technology created sonar images as it swept the area in search of the missing vessel.
Knudson's statement said that if the wreckage detected is confirmed to be the missing cargo ship, attempts will be made to locate and recover the critical voyage data recorder. It added that the next phase of operations is expected to take up to 15 days to complete in ideal conditions, longer depending on weather or other conditions encountered in coming days.