NASSAU, Bahamas – Aircraft and ships searching off the Bahamas islands for a U.S. cargo ship that lost contact during Hurricane Joaquin have found more debris and clues but no definitive word yet on the fate of the vessel or the 33 people on board.
The owner of the 790-foot El Faro said a container that appears to have come from the ship was found, while the Coast Guard said it had located a debris field that included what appeared to be pieces of container. Searchers have also spotted an oil sheen and found a life ring from the El Faro.
Chief Petty Officer Bobby Nash said it was too early to come to any conclusion.
"We still don't have communication with the ship and we don't even know if the debris field is from the ship," said Nash, a Coast Guard spokesman.
Two Coast Guard cutters, the Northland and Resolute, were expected to continue searching overnight Sunday as the aircraft returned to their bases.
The fourth-day of searching across a wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean near Crooked Island was aided by the first day of calmer weather now that Joaquin has left the Bahamas and was en route to Bermuda.
Authorities lost contact with the El Faro early Thursday as the ship sailed through the Bahamas at the height of the storm as it sailed from its homeport in Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Family members of the crew said they were trying to remain optimistic, but were also clearly in agony as they anxiously awaited word of any developments at the Seafarer's International Union hall in Jacksonville. Some sobbed and hugged each other.
"This is torture," Mary Shevory, mother of crew member Mariette Wright.
Shevory, who had come to the Seafarer's Union Hall in Jacksonville from her home in Massachusetts, said her 51-year-old daughter was devoted to her job working on the ship.
"I'm just praying to God they find the ship and bring my daughter and everyone on it home," she said.
Laurie Bobillot, whose daughter, Danielle Randolph, is a second mate on the El Faro, said Sunday she was trying not to lose hope after nearly four days anxiously waiting for news of the ship from its owner, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico.
"We've got to stay positive," said Bobillot, of Rockland, Maine. "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 (9 meters).
The crew reported that the ship had lost power, had taken on water and was listing 15 degrees but that the situation was "manageable," in their last communication on Thursday morning, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, said. They have not been heard from since.
The first sign of the ship, an orange life ring, was found Saturday about 120 miles (193 kilometers) northeast of Crooked Island. That was followed by floating debris and the oil sheen on Sunday.
TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico said a contracted tugboat and another of its ships had found a container that appears to be from the El Faro. But "there has been no sighting of the El Faro or any life boats," company president Tim Nolan said in a statement.
Barry Young, whose nephew Shaun Riviera is a crew member, said the vessel was equipped with state-of-the-art lifeboats and the increased visibility was giving relatives hope. "But even with a ship this big it's like finding a needle in a haystack," he said outside the union hall.
The company has defended its decision to authorize voyage. Crew members were "equipped to handle situations such as changing weather," it said in a statement.
Phil Greene, president and CEO of TOTE Services, Inc., said the captain had been observing the weather patterns and discussed the weather as the El Faro passed its sister ship going in the opposite direction.
"On Wednesday he sent a message to the home office with the status of the developing tropical storm he said he had very good weather ... and that his crew was prepared," Greene said.
Greene said the El Faro has been in service for many years and was built to work in the rough seas off Alaska. "She is a sturdy, rugged vessel that was well maintained and that the crew members were proud of."
Dearen reported from Jacksonville, Florida. Associated Press writer David McFadden contributed from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.