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SS EL FARO MYSTERY: Missing Ship Used To Bring Groceries, Automobiles To The Virgin Islands

tote maritme

MIAMI – One set of human remains has been found in the debris field from the cargo ship El Faro, but U.S. Coast Guard officials said today that they were still searching for survivors.

During a press conference in Miami, Coast Guard spokesman Mark Fedor said crews had suspended their search for the ship and now believe that it sank last week during Hurricane Joaquin.

“We’re still looking for survivors or any signs of life,” Fedor said.

Officials did find one set of human remains in a survival suit, Fedor said, but those remains were not identifiable. Other immersion suits were found as well, as well as a lifeboat, one of two on board the El Faro, that was heavily damaged but empty.

The 790-foot cargo ship left Jacksonville, Florida, last Tuesday carrying 391 containers topside and another 294 trailers and cars below deck. It was bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico, but instead ran into the hurricane as the powerful storm raced north.

Neither El Faro nor its 33 passengers – four from Maine, including Capt. Michael Davidson of Windham – have been seen or heard from since last week. Crew members made a satellite distress call Thursday morning from a location about 35 nautical miles northeast of Crooked Island in the Bahamas to report that the ship had taken on water and was listing by 15 degrees, but that the flooding had stopped. That was the last communication from the ship.

In addition to Davidson, 53, the Mainers on board were Michael Holland of Wilton, Danielle Randolph, 34, of Rockland, and Dylan Meklin, 23, of Rockland. All four were graduates of Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.

Randolph wrote an email to her mother just before the ship began taking on water, according to the Washington Post.

“Not sure if you’ve been following the weather at all,” Randolph wrote to Laurie Bobillot, “but there is a hurricane out here and we are heading straight into it. Winds are super bad and seas are not great.”

During searches over the weekend, debris from the ship was found, including life jackets, wood, containers and oil sheen. Fedor said based on information obtained during those searches, the ship is presumed to have sunk near its last known position.

The El Faro, built in 1974 and owned by TOTE Maritime Services Puerto Rico, was equipped with 46 survival suits, more than enough for the number of crew members, but Fedor said today that mariners likely could survive for only four or five days in warm water. The average water temperature around the Bahamas this time of year is between 78 and 80 degrees.

In addition to the suits, the ship had two 43-passenger lifeboats, one of which was found empty, and five life rafts with a total capacity of 106 passengers.

Fedor said maritime conditions during the Category 4 hurricane were brutal. He said even if crew members were able to get off the ship and into a life raft or boat, they would still be facing 140 mph winds and zero visibility.

“Those are challenging conditions to survive in,” he said.

Still, he said officials were not giving up hope. There were three U.S. Coast Guard cutters in the water this morning and search planes flying overhead as well.

“We are not going to discount somebody’s will to survive,” he said.

Deb Roberts, Holland’s mother, wrote on Facebook that she was holding out for a miracle.

“As you all have probably heard by now, we received word this morning that the Coast Guard and Tote Services believe that the SS El Faro sunk in Hurricane Joaquin,” the post read. “The hope we hold on to now is that they will find survivors today. Evidence is showing that the crew put themselves in the best possible position to survive by getting into their immersion suits. Miracles happen. Keep the faith! Prayers needed more than ever today.”

Weather conditions hampered search efforts on Friday and Saturday. Sunday was the first day Coast Guard officials were able to effectively search the area, Fedor said.

The search for survivors would focus on the debris field near the El Faro’s last known location, which spans about 300 nautical miles, and a smaller area about 60 miles to the north, Fedor said. The depth of the ocean there is 15,000 feet, or roughly three miles.

All mariners are warned about weather conditions prior to making a trip, Fedor said. The decision to leave would have been Davidson’s to make and he has been described as an experienced and more-than capable captain.

Nevertheless, the incident will be investigated by both the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board.

According to TOTE Maritime’s website, the El Faro was last inspected by the Coast Guard in March. The ship makes weekly trips between the U.S. and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, typically carrying groceries and completing automobile shipping contracts.

Several family members traveled to Jacksonville to be closer to the search.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) released a statement today offering thoughts and prayers to crew members.

“While it’s devastating to learn El Faro has sunk, we must continue to hold onto hope and pray that survivors will be located and reunited with their loved ones,” Poliquin said in a statement. “In English, El Faro means ‘The Lighthouse’ and it is my hope that our lighthouses will help guide our Mainers, and the crew, home.”

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) said she was glad searchers were not giving up.

“Almost everyone in Maine knows someone who works on the water and knows the risks that involves,” she said. “Our thoughts are with the brave men and women who go to sea and the Coast Guard and military personnel who have risked their own lives to conduct the search.”

On the TOTE Maritime website, it says the company provides “award winning service includes shipping to the Virgin Islands, specifically to ports at St. Thomas and St. Croix.”

“As a full-service shipping company, TOTE Maritime can take your cargo from point of departure to market destination making the whole process of shipping to the Virgin Islands seamless. We offer a diverse and young fleet of equipment – including 20-, 40-, 45- and 48-foot dry containers, as well as 40-foot and 45-foot refrigerated containers. TOTE Maritime’s Caribbean service gives you more of what you count on: a fixed day, weekly service from the United States to the U.S. Virgin Islands.”

danielle randolph

Missing at sea: Danielle Randolph


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The Author

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy is primarily known for his investigative reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands. A series of reports beginning in the 1990's revealed that there was everything from coliform bacteria to Cryptosporidium in locally-bottled St. Croix drinking water, according to a then-unpublished University of the Virgin Islands sampling. Another report, following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, cited a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) confidential overview that said that over 40 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands public lives below the poverty line. The Virgin Islands Free Press is the only Caribbean news source to regularly incorporate the findings of U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is the former news director of WSVI-TV Channel 8 on St. Croix.

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