WASHINGTON (AP) — Searchers using high-tech sonars have discovered the deep-water wreckage of a vessel believed to be the cargo ship El Faro, which went missing Oct. 1 with 33 crewmembers during Hurricane Joaquin, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said late Saturday.
The federal agency said the wreckage is some 15,000 feet below the water's surface and its identity still must be confirmed by sending down a remotely operated deep ocean vehicle.
The federal agency's statement added that experts aboard a specially equipped Navy vessel reported they located the wreckage at 1:36 p.m. EDT Saturday deep underwater in the area of the ship's last known position. The wreckage was detected on the fifth of 13 surveying passes by that ship, USNS Apache.
The 790-foot El Faro was reported missing east of the Bahamas, according to the Coast Guard.
The NTSB said investigators will now seek to survey the debris and confirm the identity of the wreckage, adding that effort could begin as early as Sunday. 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."
"To confirm the finding, specialists on Apache will use CURV 21, 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 emailed by Peter Knudson of the agency's public affairs office in Washington.
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 had 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 disappeared were five engineers from Poland, who were working on the retrofitting as the ship sailed to Puerto Rico.
NTSB investigators have said Davidson intended to pass 65 miles from the center of the storm. Independent maritime experts have said that such a decision would be risky.
The NTSB, an independent federal agency, is conducting an investigation into the cargo ship's disappearance. It said it had contracted for a search vessel with the U.S. Navy to help locate the missing ship, document the wreckage and debris field, and if possible, recover the crucial voyage data recorder.
Investigators have said they hope to recover that recorder, a ship's "black box," in an effort to understand more about what had happened.
The statement said the Navy search ship departed from Virginia on Oct. 19 after being fitted with state-of-the-art underwater detection equipment, arriving at the cargo ship's last known position Oct. 23.
The statement added that search experts aboard the Apache first towed a special device called a towed pinger locator in the water, slowly sweeping around 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 yielded no pinger signal and that piece of equipment was withdrawn and a side-scanning sonar system, called Orion, was then deployed.
The NTSB said the specialized sonar technology creates sonar images as it sweeps the waters, seeking patterns that provide clues to a 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 coming phase of operations is expected to take up to 15 days to complete in ideal conditions, longer depending on weather or other conditions encountered.