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U.S. Navy Deploying Search Team to Find Lost Merchant Ship El Faro

Undated photo of merchant ship SS El Faro. Marine Traffic Photo

Undated photo of merchant ship SS El Faro. Marine Traffic Photo

At the request of the National Transportation Safety Board, the Navy is scrambling a ship and an underwater search team to find the missing merchant ship SS El Faro, Navy officials told USNI News on Thursday.

The roll-on/roll-off merchant ship was made its last contact on Oct. 1 and was feared to have sunk when it crossed paths with Hurricane Joaquin.

The U.S. Coast Guard ended its search for the crew on Oct. 7 with all 33 hands onboard the U.S.-flagged ship — including 28 Americans — presumed lost at sea.

“Several ‘survival suits’ were spotted floating in the water, one of which contained the body,” according to a statement at the time from the Coast Guard reported via NPR.
“In addition, an empty, heavily damaged lifeboat was found.”

Now, the Navy is preparing fleet tug USNS Apache (T-ATF-172) that is scheduled to depart Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Va. next week for to search an area northeast of Crooked Island in the Bahamas — an area commonly referred to as the “Bermuda Triangle.”

“The initial search area is 100 square miles, and we estimate water depth to be 15,000 feet across the expected search area,” Naval Sea Systems Command spokesman Chris Johnson told USNI News on Thursday.
“We estimate we will remain in the area until mid-November.”

Apache “will be equipped with several pieces of underwater search equipment, including a voyage data recorder locator, side-scan sonar and an underwater [remotely operated vehicle],” Johnson said.

The ROV is likely to be the Navy’s CURV 21 deep ocean salvage ROV that can operate at depths of 20,000 feet.

An undated photo of the Powhatan class fleet ocean tug USNS Apache (T-ATF-172). US Navy Photo

An undated photo of the Powhatan class fleet ocean tug USNS Apache (T-ATF-172). US Navy Photo

The loss of El Faro is among the worst U.S. merchant marine disaster recent memory. The last comparable loss of a U.S. flagged merchant ship that close to the East Coast was the sinking of SS Marine Electric in 1983 in which 31 of the 34 member crew were lost 30 miles off the coast of Virginia.

“Not since 1983 has an American flagged merchant ship gone to the bottom in such an ugly way,” merchant captain Allen Baker wrote Monday in The Baltimore Sun.

The following is the complete Oct. 15, 2015 statement from NAVSEA on the search for El Faro.

The National Transportation Safety Board has asked the U.S. Navy to assist in the search for the missing U.S. flagged merchant vessel El Faro. To support this effort, the Navy is deploying a deep-water search and salvage team embarked aboard the fleet ocean tug USNS Apache (T-ATF-172). The ship will be equipped with several pieces of underwater search equipment, including a voyage data recorder locator, side-scan sonar, and an underwater ROV. Once deployed, the Navy will focus its search northeast of Crooked Island in the Bahamas island chain, which is the last known location of the vessel.

The Navy will begin loading equipment aboard Apache in Little Creek, Va., on Thursday, Oct. 15. Load-out will take approximately four to five days, after which point the ship will deploy to the search area. Transit to the search area will take approximately two days.

The initial search area is 100 square miles, and we estimate water depth to be 15,000 feet across the expected search area. We estimate we will remain in the area until mid-November.

El Faro had 33 people on board, including 28 American citizens. The last known communication with the ship was on October 1st.

The U.S. Navy operates some of the world’s most advanced underwater search and salvage systems, so we are uniquely qualified to perform this type of mission. Though our equipment is typically used to search and recover downed military ships and aircraft, the Navy has a long history in assisting other federal agencies in underwater search and salvage operations, including the search and recovery of TWA 800 and the space shuttle Challenger. In 2013, the Navy assisted the government of Australia in its search for missing Malaysian Airliner MH 370.

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Categories: Merchant Marine, News & Analysis, Surface Forces, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy
Sam LaGrone

About Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He was formerly the U.S. Maritime Correspondent for the Washington D.C. bureau of Jane’s Defence Weekly and Jane’s Navy International. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.