Lost at sea: Ship with 33 people missing in Hurricane Joaquin

Posted at 3:35 PM, Oct 03, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-03 15:53:31-04

(CNN) — For more than 36 hours, there’s been no word from, and no sign of, the U.S.-flagged container ship El Faro.

That means no news on what’s happened to the 28 Americans and five Poles aboard, faced with the full fury of Hurricane Joaquin and its up to 150 mph gusts, 30-foot waves and potentially 25 inches of rain.

The U.S. Coast Guard dispatched a cutter ship, an MH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopter and a C-130 Hercules airplane on Friday. But while the C-130 flew as low as 2,000 feet — far below the normal 10,000 feet for such a storm — it was not able to get close to the last known location off the Bahamas of El Faro, which means lighthouse in Spanish, much less spot or communicate with its occupants.

“There’s so much wind, thunderstorms and sea spray that it is difficult to see,” Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor told CNN’s Eric Burnett. “But our hope is that they are either on the vessel or on life rafts, and we can identify them.”

Fedor said that the search will resume “at first light” Saturday morning, hoping by then Joaquin will have finally picked up its pace — after crawling for most of the past two days — and turned away from the Bahamas.

CNN meteorologist Jennifer Gray noted that the ship may have been able to ride out the storm as it passed, or it might have been dragged northward with it. The problem is that, at this point, nobody really knows.

“We know they’re disabled,” Fedor said. “So really, they’re just moving along with the force of the storm.”

Ship’s last contact was early Thursday

The Bahamas has been hit hard by Joaquin. Up to 3 feet of standing water was reported in some areas, a product of 12 to 18 inches (and 25 inches in isolated spots) of rain and storm surges 2 to 4 feet above normal.

The good news was, after moving little the past few days, Joaquin was churning northeast at 7 mph after finally starting its much anticipated pivot at about 8 p.m. ET, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. Centered 25 miles north-northeast of San Salvador in the Bahamas, it then boasted sustained 125 mph winds — making it a Category 3 storm, down a bit from a day earlier.

Forecasters once feared that Joaquin could make a direct hit on the United States next. That’s no longer the case, though the broader system could still produce heavy and possibly historic rains from the Southeast to the Mid-Atlantic through the weekend.

Sometime then, the hope is that El Faro’s occupants will have been found safe. If so, they’ll have quite a story to tell.

The cargo ship set off Tuesday for San Juan, Puerto Rico, from Jacksonville, Florida. When it did, the ship’s officers were monitoring what was then Tropical Storm Joaquin, according to Tim Nolan, president of TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, which owns the vessel.

But all communications was shut off at 7:20 a.m. ET Thursday.

“There are a number of possible reasons for the loss of communications among them the increasing severity of Hurricane Joaquin,” Nolan said in a statement.

The Coast Guard received a report Thursday morning that the ship had lost propulsion and was taking on water, but that the flooding had been contained.

The ship was reported to be in distress somewhere near Crooked Island in the Bahamas.

Another rescue mission was successful: On Thursday night, the Coast Guard helicopter lifted 12 sailors from their sinking 212-foot cargo ship besieged by Joaquin and listing 51 miles northwest of Haiti, the guard said. The 12 crew members were in a life raft and belonged to the Bolivian-flagged cargo ship Minouche.