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Coast Guard Suspends Search For El Faro Survivors


The Coast Guard is suspending its search for survivors of the El Faro, the cargo ship that went down in Hurricane Joaquin. Thirty-three crew members were on board the 790-foot container ship when it was caught last Thursday in Joaquin's path. It's now been nearly seven days. No survivors have been found. Still, Coast Guard Captain Mark Fedor says suspending the search was a painful decision.


CAPTAIN MARK FEDOR: I want the families to really know how committed we were to finding their loved ones, to finding our fellow professional mariners and really to find those who go down to the sea and ships.

SIEGEL: NPR's Greg Allen has been following the search effort and he joins us now from Miami. Hey, Greg.


SIEGEL: Did the Coast Guard say what went into their decision to suspend their search and rescue operation?

ALLEN: Well, Captain Fedor described at great lengths all the searching that had been going on since really Saturday when the conditions were still very tough out there, hard to - still had hundred-mile-per-hour winds. Sunday is when they really got going. I think they say with the - one helicopter was in the air for 11 hours one day when the conditions were really good. He was trying to make the point about how hard they'd looked and how badly they feel that they haven't come up with any - haven't been able to find anyone. They've stayed in close touch with family members all along and talked with them earlier today about the decision to suspend the search. Many of those family members are in Jacksonville. That's the port that the El Faro sailed from.

But as Fedor said, the bad facts are here that even in warm water conditions, people are not likely to survive out there for more than four or five days. And tomorrow, it'll be a full week since the El Faro went down. After searching intensively using aircraft and Coast Guard Cutters, crews found the remains of one person earlier this week, but that was it. And Fedor said these were experienced, well-trained mariners who abandoned ship. But when they did abandon ship, it was likely at the height of the hurricane when there was 140 mile per hour winds, 50 foot waves, zero visibility, so survival really would have been tough.

SIEGEL: Yeah. The National Transportation Safety Board is on the scene to investigate what happened. Do they have any answers yet as to why the El Faro's captain took his ship into the path of a Category 4 hurricane?

ALLEN: Well, that really is the question. But what NTSB officials say is that they are going to reserve any kind of comment until they recover the ship's voyage data recorder. That's something kind of like a black box of an airplane that records audio from the bridge and navigational information. But they're going to have to likely recover that from 15,000 feet of water, which is where they believe the ship went down. So they'll have to use remote operated underwater vehicles to get that back. But the NTSB is going to avoid speculating until then about what happened.

What we do know from officials with TOTE Maritime, the ship's owners, is that the El Faro's captain, Michael Davidson, was experienced. That when he left port on Tuesday in the El Faro, Joaquin was a tropical storm, not a significant concern. On early Thursday when he made the radio call to the company, Davidson said the ship was listing to one side, had lost its propulsion, was taking on water. A company official suggests that they think Davidson was thinking he could outrun the storm, but the ship lost its engines and then got caught by Joaquin.

SIEGEL: Greg, what about the ship's owners? Are they taking responsibility for the loss and the loss of 33 crew members?

ALLEN: They - today, they had a briefing where they just made a brief appearance where they said that they share the agony and the - with the family for the loss of their 33 friends and colleagues. They did speak more extensively earlier in the week on the - the CEO of the TOTE Maritime, Anthony Chiarello, said that the decision to sail was really left up to the captain. The company could override that decision. They did not do so in this case, Chiarello says, but the ultimate responsibility for everything that happened here is his.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Greg.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.