U.S. investigators head to Florida to probe ship lost in hurricane

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 06, 2015 8:56 AM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Federal safety investigators traveled to Florida on Tuesday to investigate the U.S. container ship lost at sea after being hit by powerful Hurricane Joaquin, leaving one person confirmed dead and 32 others missing.

The team from the National Transportation Safety Board left Washington for Jacksonville, Florida, where the El Faro had departed from last week en route to San Juan, Puerto Rico, before disappearing in what maritime experts called the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than 30 years.

NTSB member Bella Dinh-Zarr acknowledged the investigation would be difficult with the ship having sunk in an unknown location after its last known location off Crooked Island in the Bahamas.

   "It's a big challenge when there's such a large area of water and at such depth," Dinh-Zarr said. "We hope for the best and that the ship will be recovered."

On Monday, the ship's owner Tote Inc said the vessel was undergoing engine room work before it sank off the Bahamas and that one presumed crew member was confirmed dead.

The NTSB's investigation is separate from that by the U.S. Coast Guard, which is still search searching for the 28 U.S. citizens and five Polish nationals who were aboard. Officials have acknowledged long odds against finding survivors.

On Monday, Coast Guard officials said they were no longer looking for the ship after debris was recovered from the sea.

The NTSB will check the ship's maintenance records and other paperwork, Dinh-Zarr told reporters at a Washington-area airport before her team's departure.

She said investigators hope to find as much material as possible amid two large debris fields, with items from El Faro, which officials have said were found about 60 miles (96 km) apart.

The 790-foot (240-meter) ship was piled high with containers and also was weighed down with trailers and automobiles below deck, according to Coast Guard officials.

Tote Services President Philip Greene said he did not think the engine room work was linked to a propulsion problem reported by the ship's captain. The company has not said why the ship was traveling amid a Category Four hurricane.

The El Faro left Jacksonville on Sept. 29. Its crew issued a distress call two days later, saying it had lost propulsion, was listing and had taken on water after sailing into the path of Joaquin in the Bahamas.

It was never heard from again.

(Additional reporting by Bill Trott and John Clarke; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)