Many Americans breathed a sigh of relief this week as Hurricane Joaquin skirted the East Coast without causing widespread damage, and the crew members of the cargo ship El Faro almost shared that relief, but the latest updates on the missing cargo ship suggest that a mechanical failure caused the 790-foot vessel to drift in the hurricane’s path.
El Faro disappeared five days ago and was last heard from on Thursday morning. According to the Associated Press, the ship was sailing from Jacksonville, Florida to San Juan, Puerto Rico when Hurricane Joaquin came barreling through.
The captain had found a way to bypass the storm and protect the ship’s 33 crew members (28 from the U.S., five from Poland), but a mechanical failure caused the ship to run through the middle of the hurricane.
All crew members would have had survival suits to keep them afloat and to provide warmth, but hypothermia would have set in — despite the water temperature being around 85 degrees F — due to the high winds (around 140 mph) and high waves (over 50 feet) caused by the hurricane.
CNN reported that the U.S. Coast Guard has encountered plenty of debris from the ship, which was carrying cars and other large cargo, spanning approximately 225 square miles.
One body has been found and a severely damaged lifeboat has been found as well, but rescue crews have not found any signs of survivors.
As The Atlantic noted, it’s very rare for a cargo ship like El Faro to sink and disappear without leaving any traces behind.
Citing the insurance firm Allianz, The Atlantic said only six large cargo ships during the past 10 years (2005 through 2014) were reported as “missing/overdue.” Within the past four years (2011 through 2014), there have been no large cargo ships missing at sea.
Ships always run the risk of sinking or submerging, Allianz’s data shows, but the large majority of cases involve some sort of warning, which gives rescue crews plenty of time to save everyone on board. In many cases, the ships themselves are actually salvaged before they sink.
For these reasons, large cargo ships like El Faro are still used to transport around 60% of the world’s cargo; the most recent data shows that over 55,000 cargo ships are responsible for moving nearly 10,000 million tons of freight each year.
That being said, even the most experienced crew members face plenty of risks at sea, even when the ships are fitted with more than enough safety equipment, as El Faro had been.
“These are trained mariners. They know how to abandon ship,” said Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor. “[But] those are challenging conditions to survive.”
Phil Greene, president and CEO of ship owner Tote Services Inc., has stated that rescue crews are still looking for signs of life, and that the company is still investigating the cause of the engine failure.