Search ends for survivors of hurricane-hit U.S. cargo ship

By Susan Cooper Eastman JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Reuters) - The U.S. Coast Guard on Wednesday ended its search for missing crew of the cargo ship El Faro that sank off the Bahamas last week after sailing into the path of Hurricane Joaquin. An exhaustive air and sea search for possible survivors was called off at sunset, six days after communication was lost with the ship and the 33 people aboard, the Coast Guard said. The decision came a day after federal safety officials arrived in Jacksonville, Florida, El Faro's home port, to launch an investigation into what maritime experts have called the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than 30 years. The White House issued a statement as the search was winding down, promising "the grieving families of El Faro" full government support in the investigation into what happened to the ship. "May God bless the men and women of the El Faro," it said. The ship's owners, Tote Maritime Puerto Rico, believe the ship sank last Thursday after suffering engine failure during its weekly run from Jacksonville to San Juan, Puerto Rico, leaving it at the mercy of Joaquin off the southern Bahamas. Officials had acknowledged earlier that chances of finding survivors were remote, given that the 790-foot (240-meter) ship, piled high with containers, disappeared in the middle of a ferocious storm with high seas whipped up by winds of 130 miles (215 km) per hour. The body of only one presumed crew member was found during the search. El Faro was carrying 28 U.S. crew members and five Polish contractors when it set out from Jacksonville. "Everybody's crying. It's not a good situation," said Terrence Meadows, 36, a merchant marine junior engineer who knew some of El Faro's crew. He spoke after joining grieving relatives at the Seafarers International Union hall in Jacksonville as word began to spread, ahead of the official announcement, that the search for survivors was ending. "To be absolutely honest, I knew everyone was dead. We don't get trained to survive in a hurricane in the ocean," Meadows said. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board will continue searching for the wreckage of El Faro, though deep seas will likely hamper the effort, said an official spearheading the investigation. The stretch of ocean where the ship is believed to have gone down, along a heavily transited shipping channel, is nearly three miles (5 km) deep. NTSB Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr said her team will be listening for the pinging of El Faro's voyage data recorder, or VDR, which is similar to the black boxes on airplanes. The device preserves the last 12 hours of engine orders and communications from the bridge. It was supposed to start pinging its location as soon as it touched water, Dihn-Zarr said, but searchers have yet to hear it. Dinh-Zarr said the decisions of El Faro's captain and the route the ship took, as well the pressure to deliver its cargo, will be scrutinized as part of an investigation into "the human factor" behind the disaster. "We will be studying the meteorological conditions and all of the factors that went into the decision-making to sail on that day and to continue to sail," she said. The investigation will also look at when and why the engine failed, and if there were problems before the ship left port, she said. Barry Young, whose nephew LeShawn Riviera, 32, was one of the crew, said he hoped the investigation would lead to better safeguards for all mariners. "There must be a greater emphasis on the safety of the crew and of the lives of the people on board these ships over the delivery of cargo," Young said. (Writing by David Adams in Miami; Editing by Tom Brown)