Missing cargo ship El Faro, hit by powerful Hurricane Joaquin, is believed to have sunk off the Bahamas and one presumed crew member is confirmed dead, the US Coast Guard said on Monday.
It said the search continued for at least 32 other people, most of them Americans, who were aboard the ship when it vanished in what maritime experts are calling the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a US-flagged vessel since 1983.
"We're assuming the vessel has sunk," Coast Guard Captain Mark Fedor told reporters in Miami. He said search and rescue teams were no longer looking for the ship, which sent a distress call early on Thursday after getting caught in Joaquin's ferocious winds and seas up to 50 feet (15 meters) high.
Coast Guard vessels and aircrews continued to search for the 28 US citizens and five Polish nationals who went missing with the ship, Fedor said.
He acknowledged they faced steep odds against survival. But officials later said three Coast Guard cutters would stay in the general area where the ship was believed to have gone down to continue searching through Monday night.
The five Poles on board were not members of the crew but part of a so-called "riding gang" to conduct repairs on the ship while it was at sea, the company that owns the ship, Tote Maritime Puerto Rico, told Reuters on Monday.
Company spokesman Mike Hanson said he was unable to specify what kinds of repairs were under way, but such ancillary crews are commonly hired to perform repairs and maintenance.
Coast Guard crews were unable to identify the one body found so far, discovered wearing a survival suit on Sunday, Fedor said. A lifeboat found among other debris from the ship was one of two that it had been carrying, each with a capacity for 43 people.
The ship was carrying 391 containers "so it had a lot of topside height to it where the winds and waves could hit it," Fedor said. There were also 294 trailers and automobiles below deck adding to its weight, he added.
The ocean where it sank is 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) deep and part of a heavily transited channel for large ships.
On Sunday, the Coast Guard spotted two large debris fields about 60 miles (96 km) apart littered with items identified as coming from El Faro, including Styrofoam, cargo doors and 55-gallon (208-liter) drums.
The 790-foot (240-meter) container ship had left Jacksonville, Florida on Tuesday for San Juan, Puerto Rico.
In a distress call on Thursday morning, El Faro said it had lost propulsion, was listing and had taken on water after sailing into the path of Joaquin off Crooked Island in the Bahamas, according to Tote Maritime Puerto Rico. It was never heard from again.
The National Transportation Safety Board will conduct an investigation, in which the Coast Guard will take part, the Coast Guard's Fedor said.
Tote Maritime has offered no official explanation as to how the ship managed to get caught in the center of a catastrophic Category Four hurricane, instead of taking evasive measures to move out of the storm's projected path.
But Hanson said on Saturday that Joaquin was only a tropical storm when El Faro set out from Jacksonville, but it later underwent a rapid intensification.
Records show that the US National Hurricane Center issued a warning about the likelihood of Joaquin becoming a hurricane at 5 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, however, nearly three hours before El Faro left port.
Many of El Faro's crew were from Jacksonville, and there are signs of deep-rooted anger there about what happened to the ill-fated vessel.
"I blame the captain and the company," said Terrence Meadows, 36, a merchant marine junior engineer from the northern Florida port city who spoke outside the Seafarers International Union hall.
"That could have been me out there. Anybody in that union hall could have been out there," Meadows said. "My heart is broken. I can only imagine what those guys were going through. You don't sign up to die like that," he added.
Seafarers International is the main North American union representing merchant mariners.
John Kimball, who teaches admiralty law at New York University School of Law, said it is premature to say what liabilities Tote could face for the loss of crew and cargo.
But New York City-based lawyer Andrew Buchsbaum, who handles maritime personal injury cases, said that since the ship was owned by a US company and sailing to a US port, families of the mariners could try to sue under a federal law called the Jones Act, which holds shippers liable for negligence and if a vessel is not seaworthy.
"It's incomprehensible with the sophisticated weather routing technology that's available that an over 700-foot merchant vessel can be caught in the middle of a previously forecasted hurricane," he said.
Tote Maritime's Hanson said he could not speculate when asked on Monday if El Faro had a propulsion or engine room problem before it was overcome by the hurricane.
"We look forward to what the investigation reveals," he said.