MIAMI - Missing cargo ship El Faro, hit by powerful Hurricane Joaquin, was undergoing engine room work before it sank off the Bahamas and one presumed crew member is confirmed dead, the ship's owner said on Monday.
The U.S. Coast Guard said the search continued for at least 32 other people, most of them Americans, who were aboard the ship when it vanished in what maritime experts are calling the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel since 1983.
After meeting with relatives of the crew late on Monday, executives from the ship's owner, Tote Inc, told reporters that the ship had been undergoing previously undisclosed engine room work while at sea during its ill-fated voyage, though they did not believe this had played a role in its sinking.
After multiple items of debris were recovered from the sea, Coast Guard Captain Mark Fedor told reporters in Miami search and rescue teams were no longer looking for the ship, which sent a distress call early on Thursday after getting caught in Joaquin's ferocious winds and seas up to 50 feet (15 meters) high.
Coast Guard vessels and aircrews continued to search for the crew, 28 U.S. citizens and five Polish nationals, Fedor said.
He acknowledged they faced steep odds against survival. But officials later said three Coast Guard cutters would stay in the general area where the ship was believed to have gone down to continue searching through Monday night.
The five Poles on board were not members of the crew but part of a so-called "riding gang" to conduct repairs on the ship while it was at sea, Tote told Reuters on Monday.
Company spokesman Mike Hanson said such ancillary crews are commonly hired to perform repairs and maintenance.
At the press conference late on Monday, Tote officials said the repair crew was working on an unspecified engine room issue as part of conversion work before it was moved to the west coast Alaska trade.
Tote Services president Philip Greene said he didn't think the engine room work was linked to a propulsion problem reported by the ship's captain in his last communication.
The 790-foot (240-meter) container ship had left Jacksonville, Florida on Tuesday for San Juan, Puerto Rico.
In Thursday's distress call, El Faro said it had lost propulsion, was listing and had taken on water after sailing into the path of Joaquin off Crooked Island in the Bahamas, according to Tote. It was never heard from again.
Coast Guard crews were unable to identify the one body found so far, discovered wearing a survival suit on Sunday, Fedor said. A lifeboat found among other debris from the ship was one of two that it had been carrying, each with a capacity for 43 people.
The ship was carrying 391 containers "so it had a lot of topside height to it where the winds and waves could hit it,"Fedor said. There were also 294 trailers and automobiles below deck adding to its weight, he added.
The ocean where it sank is 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) deep and part of a heavily transited channel for large ships.
On Sunday, the Coast Guard spotted two large debris fields about 60 miles (96 km) apart littered with items identified as coming from El Faro, including Styrofoam, cargo doors and 55-gallon (208-liter) drums.
The National Transportation Safety Board will conduct an investigation, in which the Coast Guard will take part, the Coast Guard's Fedor said.
Tote has offered no official explanation as to how the ship managed to get caught in the center of a Category Four hurricane, instead of taking evasive measures to move out of the storm's projected path.
But Hanson said on Saturday that Joaquin was only a tropical storm when El Faro set out from Jacksonville, but it later underwent a rapid intensification.
Records show that the U.S. National Hurricane Center issued a warning about the likelihood of Joaquin becoming a hurricane at 5 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, however, nearly three hours before El Faro left port.
Many of El Faro's crew were from Jacksonville, and there are signs of deep-rooted anger there about what happened to the ill-fated vessel. "I blame the captain and the company," said Terrence Meadows, 36, a merchant marine junior engineer from the northern Florida port city who spoke outside the Seafarers International Union hall. "That could have been me out there. Anybody in that union hall could have been out there," Meadows said. "My heart is broken. I can only imagine what those guys were going through. You don't sign up to die like that," he added.
Seafarers International is the main North American union representing merchant mariners.
John Kimball, who teaches admiralty law at New York University School of Law, said it is premature to say what liabilities Tote could face for the loss of crew and cargo.
But New York City-based lawyer Andrew Buchsbaum, who handles maritime personal injury cases, said that since the ship was owned by a U.S. company and sailing to a U.S. port, families of the mariners could try to sue under a federal law called the Jones Act, which holds shippers liable for negligence and if a vessel is not seaworthy. "It's incomprehensible with the sophisticated weather routing technology that's available that an over 700-foot merchant vessel can be caught in the middle of a previously forecasted hurricane," he said.
Tote's Hanson said he could not speculate when asked on Monday if El Faro had a propulsion or engine room problem before it was overcome by the hurricane. "We look forward to what the investigation reveals," he said.