U.S. investigators begin probe into freighter's sinking

By Susan Eastman

By Susan Eastman

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Reuters) - Safety officials began their investigation on Tuesday into the sinking of a U.S. cargo ship off the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin, with deep seas likely to hamper attempts to find the ship and 32 missing crew members.

As the search for the El Faro extended through a sixth fruitless day, National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr said her team would look at everything from marine logs to why the ship was caught in a hurricane.

"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," Dinh-Zarr said.

"That is just one part of our very detailed investigative process," she told a news conference.

Maritime experts have called the sinking of the El Faro en route from Jacksonville to San Juan, Puerto Rico, the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than 30 years.

Dahn-Zarr earlier told reporters the probe promised to be difficult given that the ship sank in an unknown location, possibly in waters 15,000 feet (4,750 meters) deep. Its last known location was off Crooked Island in the Bahamas.

Locating the wreckage would allow investigators to retrieve the vessel's black box voyage data recorder. It preserves the last 12 hours of engine orders and communications from the bridge and has a 30-day battery life.

The ship's owner, Tote Inc, said the New Jersey-based company's Puerto Rican unit was hiring an independent maritime firm to conduct a safety assessment that would be made public once completed. It has vowed to cooperate fully with the NTSB.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

Tote President and Chief Executive Anthony Chiarello and other company officials have yet to explain why the ship sailed into the same area where Hurricane Joaquin reached a potentially catastrophic Category Four on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity. There are other major, unanswered questions about what happened to El Faro before it sank.

The ship was crewed by 28 Americans as well as five Poles who were contracted to perform repairs and maintenance. The body of one presumed crew member has been found.

Dahn-Zarr said investigators hoped to find as much material as possible amid two large debris fields strewn with items from El Faro. The Coast Guard has reported seeing a battered life boat, life jackets, life rings, and cargo containers amid white polystyrene packing foam bobbing in the ocean.

The 790-foot (240-meter) ship was piled high with containers and also was weighed down with trailers and automobiles below deck, according to Coast Guard officials.

The U.S. Coast Guard said late on Tuesday it had three vessels in the area of the El Faro's last known position and would continue searching through the night into Wednesday, after suspending an unproductive aerial search for the day.

Officials have acknowledged there is scant chance of finding survivors given that El Faro disappeared in ferocious winds and seas of up to 50 feet (15 meters).

The El Faro left Jacksonville on the night of Sept. 29, just after U.S. forecasters warned that then-Tropical Storm Joaquin was poised to strengthen into a hurricane.

Its crew issued a distress call about 36 hours later, saying it had lost propulsion, was listing and had taken on water after sailing into the path of Joaquin. It was never heard from again.

Tote told reporters the vessel was undergoing engine room work before it sank. However, company officials have said they do not believe the work was related to a propulsion problem reported by the captain before the El Faro sank.

"The contractors were on board doing some work in the engine

room space, they were not performing any work on the engines," said Philip Greene, who heads the ship management subsidiary

Tote Services.

"They were doing preparatory work in order for the ship to

be converted for service in the Alaska trade," Greene said.

He acknowledged at a news conference that engine failure

sealed the fate of El Faro.

(Additional reporting by Bill Trott and John Clarke in Washington, David Adams in Miami and Barbara Liston in Jacksonville; Editing by Frances Kerry, Ian Simpson and Tom Brown)