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At 40 years old, sunken vessel El Faro had 'all the signs of an aging ship'

El Faro. (Courtesy TOTE Maritime)

El Faro. (Courtesy TOTE Maritime)

El Faro, the cargo ship that sank in the Bahamas after getting caught in the path Hurricane Joaquin, was old, as far as ships go.

The cargo ship, originally named Puerto Rico, was built in Pennsylvania in 1974 for Navieras de Puerto Rico—the government-owned shipping line that controlled all cargo brought into the island from 1974 until 1995. But the company, faced with mounting debt, sold the ship to TOTE, which used it to ferry cargo from Tacoma, Washington to Anchorage, Alaska.

The vessel’s owner said the captain of the ship sought to bypass Hurricane Joaquin but a mechanical failure left the ship stranded and in the ferocious path of the powerful storm. Coast Guard officials have concluded it sank near the Bahamas in about 15,000 of water. One body has been recovered.

The ship, carrying cars and other products, had 28 crew members from the U.S. and five from Poland.

According to the company, the ship has been upgraded twice, in 1992 and 2006.

At the time of the second upgrade, which expanded the ship to 790 feet long with a gross tonnage of 31,515, TOTE transferred the vessel to its Sea Star Lines subsidiary, renamed El Faro, which means lighthouse in Spanish, and switched it back to Puerto Rico duty. Since 2006, it had been carrying goods between San Juan and Jacksonville.

Phil Greene, president and CEO of TOTE Services – TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico’s parent company – told the Associated Press that El Faro “is a sturdy, rugged vessel that was well maintained and that the crew members were proud of."

But some questions whether such an aging ship should have still been in operation. While the ship was had recently been upgraded, it was still 40 years old.

“It’s got all the problems of an aging ship,” Vincent Brannigan, a professor emeritus of law and technology at the University of Maryland, told the Bangor Daily News. “1975, that’s a long time ago for this type of ship.”

The Daily News said El Faro and its sister ship, El Yunque, were going to be retrofitted this fall and would begin west-coast routes.

Greene said the captain had a plan to sail ahead of the hurricane with room to spare.

He added that the captain, whose name has not been released, had conferred with the El Faro's sister ship – which was returning to Jacksonville along a similar route – and determined the weather was good enough to go forward.

"Regrettably he suffered a mechanical problem with his main propulsion system, which left him in the path of the storm," Greene said. "We do not know when his engine problems began to occur, nor the reasons for his engine problems."

The last message from the ship came Thursday morning, when the captain reported the El Faro was listing slightly at 15 degrees in strong winds and heavy seas. Some water had entered through a hatch that popped open.

The captain, who has 20 years' experience on cargo ships, calmly told company officials the crew was removing the water.

The Coast Guard was unable to fly into the ship's last known position until Sunday, because of the fierce hurricane winds.

Steven Werse, a ship captain with 31 years' experience on the seas, said merchant vessels have access to up-to-date weather forecasting and technology that allow them to avoid most storms.

If the El Faro had not lost engine power, he added, it would probably still have been powerful enough to make it through Joaquin.

Without power, it was a sitting duck.

"The ship really is at the mercy of the sea. You have no means of maneuvering the ship. You would be rolling with the seas," said Werse, secretary-treasurer of the Master Mates and Pilots Union in Linthicum Heights, Maryland. The union has no connection to the El Faro or its crew.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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