Three days after the freighter El Faro went missing during Hurricane Joaquin, the families of four Mainers aboard the cargo ship gathered at a union hall in Jacksonville, Florida, as news trickled in that life jackets, containers, an oil sheen and a 225-square-mile debris field had been discovered about 88 nautical miles northeast of the Bahamas.

The 790-foot El Faro was en route from Jacksonville to San Juan, Puerto Rico, when the Coast Guard lost contact with the ship after a distress call received at 7:30 a.m. Thursday.

The Mainers among the 33-member crew are the captain, Michael Davidson of Windham; and Maine Maritime Academy graduates Dylan Meklin, a 2010 graduate of Rockland District High School; Danielle Randolph, 34, of Rockland; and Michael Holland, 25, of Wilton.

Randolph’s mother, Laurie Bobillot, waited Sunday at the Seafarers International Union Hall in Jacksonville along with Holland’s mother, Deb Roberts, Jon Chrisos of CBS 13 reported.

Roberts said waiting with other parents made the difficult time “a little less heart-wrenching,” and she said support from Maine friends — many of whom have changed their Facebook profile photos to her son’s graduation picture — is welcome.

Bobillot read an email sent by her daughter on Tuesday: “There is a hurricane out here and we are headed straight into it. Category three. Winds are super bad and seas are not great. Love to everyone.”

In a statement sent Saturday morning to the Maine Maritime Academy community, academy President William J. Brennan declined to speculate on crew members who may be connected to the Castine college but said the news “has us all extremely concerned for the safety of all on board.”

Carrying 391 cargo containers and 294 trailers and cars, the El Faro was set to arrive in San Juan at 5 p.m. Friday, but on Thursday morning the captain reported the ship was beset by Hurricane Joaquin north of San Salvador Island in the Bahamas, had lost power and was listing at 15 degrees. He also reported that the ship had been taking on water, but that the flooding had been contained.

The Coast Guard announced Friday evening that it had lost contact with the 41-year-old ship after that distress call, and since then it has tried to re-establish contact with the vessel.

On Friday and Saturday, an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, two U.S. Air Force C-130 Hurricane Hunters and a U.S. Navy P-8 surveillance plan equipped with sophisticated surface search radar searched nearer the last known location of the ship, 25 nautical miles north of Crooked Island, Bahamas.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard cutters Northland and Resolute, along with a Navy ship and three commercial tugboats, were en route but were hampered by the stalled hurricane that at one point Saturday grew to a Category 4 on a scale of 1 to 5, with winds upward of 100 knots 50 miles from the eye of the storm.

“We’re trying to get them in safely as soon as we can,” Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss said Saturday. “These planes are designed to fly in storms, and we train to fly in bad weather, but at the same time we can only do so much. One of the pilots said today on the phone that this is the worst anyone on this crew has ever flown in.”

Doss said the track of Joaquin “just kind of circled the area [surrounding the ship] and made a loop of about 100 miles or so. It went down and circled around it, and now it’s going back out almost the same way it came in. It’s kind of unbelievable.”

The El Faro’s Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon had not transmitted a signal since 7:30 a.m. Thursday, which Doss said is “a bit of a mystery. Normally it would go off either until it’s deactivated or the battery died. In this case, it pinged once, although sometimes that can indicate a malfunction or that someone hit a button.”

As family members gathered at the union hall Saturday afternoon, the Coast Guard confirmed that the crew of the Jayhawk helicopter had retrieved a life ring stenciled with markings from the missing ship, about 70 miles north of its last known position.

They also spotted two other life rings and a life preserver that could not be identified as belonging to the El Faro.

TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, which operates the El Faro, set up a website, elfaroincident.com, to keep families apprised of the latest news on the search, as well as a hotline, 844-797-2706, for family members to gain information.

In a fact sheet posted on the site, company officials said, “At the time of the El Faro’s departure, the vessel’s officers and crew were monitoring what was then Tropical Storm Joaquin … TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico authorized the sailing knowing that the crew are more than equipped to handle situations such as changing weather.”

By the time the searched ended Saturday evening due to intense weather and low light, the Coast Guard had searched more than 30,000 square nautical miles.

A third C-130 Hurricane Hunter from New England joined the air search when it resumed Sunday at daybreak, but Coast Guard cutters Northland and Resolute, along with a Navy ship and three commercial tugboats, were still fighting rough seas to reach the last known location of El Faro.

“The Navy aircraft is trying to push closer to the storm and is searching at an altitude that would be able to locate a ship, but wouldn’t really help [finding] individuals in the water,” he said. “Then our Coast Guard aircraft is flying lower to the water and searching more at the surface level.”

At noon Sunday, with search conditions close to ideal with 1-foot waves, 15-knot winds and clear skies, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma confirmed a container, life jacket and an oil sheen had been found between the El Faro’s last known location and the spot where the Coast Guard recovered the first life ring.

“We’re finding items consistent with a ship of that size, but there’s still no sign of the ship,” he said. “The search conditions are ideal. This is the first good day we’ve had to search.”

At 12:30 p.m. Sunday, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico president Tim Nolan said the container appeared to be from the El Faro.

“Our thoughts and prayers remain with the 33 individuals aboard the ship and their families,” Nolan said in the release. “They are our number one priority.”

The El Faro, which underwent a major overhaul in 2006, was formerly named the Northern Lights and operated under the Sea Star Line, which has since been reorganized as TOTE Maritime Alaska and TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, both owned by parent company Saltchuck Resources.

Nick Mavodones, operations manager at Casco Bay Lines, told WCSH6 in Portland on Friday that Davidson is a “very experienced mariner” who previously worked as a captain at Casco Bay Lines.

“Any time you’re a mariner, you want to exercise prudence operating a vessel, and I’m sure he was doing that earlier this week when got under way from Jacksonville,” Mavodones said. “He’s been sailing these ships for many years and is very experienced, and I think, a very good sailor.”

On Saturday, Melkin’s best friend, Luke Morrill, told CBS 13: “I just can’t believe what’s going on. … I hope everyone on that ship is all right and that everyone on the ship is just riding it out. Obviously, you and me think about the worst, but Dylan’s a strong kid and comes from strong family. Everyone on that ship is strong and they’re trained. You think about the worst, but those guys are out there doing what they’re trained to do.”

In an email Sunday afternoon, Jordan P. Biscardo, spokesman for the Seafarers International Union, wrote, “The president of our organization, Mike Sacco, often says we are more like a family than a union, and I think that context is important in understanding our collective emotional state. We are extremely grateful to everyone involved in the search-and-rescue mission. We are hoping for the best. From interacting with hundreds of SIU members online and on the phone, I know we’re all extremely anxious. In modern times, this appears to be an unprecedented situation.”

Skip Strong III of Southwest Harbor graduated from Maine Maritime Academy in 1984 and for the last 19 years has piloted ships in and out of Searsport, Bucksport, Penobscot Harbor and Bar Harbor for Penobscot Bay and River Pilots.

Strong, who worked on oil tankers for more than a decade, said his heart sank when he heard a debris field and oil slick had been found Sunday.

When a ship loses propulsion, the captain is unable to steer into a wave, “and the tendency of ships is to go broadside to the wind and the sea,” he said. “That’s a really bad situation to be in.”

“If there’s a debris field, it’s not going to be good news,” Strong said. “If the thing did go over, hopefully people got out but you just don’t know. Those are pretty horrific conditions out there: 40-foot seas, 100-knot winds, and it’s probably happening in the dark.”

Just before a prayer vigil for family and friends got underway at 5 p.m. Sunday, a Coast Guard C-130 crew reported finding a 225-square-mile debris field full of styrofoam, wood, cargo and other floating items about 88 nautical miles northeast of Semana Cay in the Bahamas.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney said from Miami that the debris field was discovered just before 4 p.m.

“We don’t know what it means,” Barney said of the debris, which has not been positively identified as belonging to the El Faro. “Based off of experience, and not necessarily a ship sinking, cargo containers have been known to fall off ships. We can’t assume anything.”

With two Coast Guard cutters already searching, a third, the Charles Sexton, headed to the area.

Coast Guard crews had searched more than 70,000 square nautical miles by the time darkness fell Sunday night, and two cutters were slated to remain at the scene to search through the night.

“This is heartbreaking to the Coast Guard because they’re classmates. Without a doubt, the Coast Guard is throwing everything they have at this,” said consultant Denise Rucker Krepp, former chief counsel for the U.S. Maritime Administration and a former Coast Guard officer. “There are also likely people from [maritime academies in] Massachusetts, California, Texas, the Great Lakes or New York. A lot of those grads also went into the Coast Guard so they know these guys and this is personal, this is awful.”

On Sunday evening, TOTE Maritime officials met with family members of the ship’s crew for several hours before holding a news conference.

Ret. Rear Admiral Philip H. Greene Jr., now president and CEO of TOTE Services, said the El Faro previously operated in the company’s Tacoma-to-Anchorage route, and “was purposely built to operate in some of the most rugged, dangerous waters in the world.”

Greene said TOTE Maritime’s afloat safety record is “superb” and that the El Faro meets all American Bureau of Shipping and U.S. Coast Guard standards, and is “a sturdy, rugged vessel” that was well-maintained.

According to Greene, the El Faro carried two 43-passenger lifeboats and five life rafts that could hold 15 to 17 people each.

Without naming Davidson, Greene said the captain had been observing the weather for several days, and on Wednesday sent a message to the home office “saying that he had very good weather and what his intentions were, and that his crew was fully prepared … he had intentions of passing in front of the weather system with an adequate margin. Regrettably he suffered a mechanical problem with his main propulsion system, which left him in the path of the storm.”

According to Strong, hundreds of thousands of ship transits occur annually around the world, and 30 or 40 ships are lost each year.

“It’s just very uncommon to happen with a U.S. flag and a U.S. crew on board,” he said.

The most recent major incident involving a U.S.-flagged vessel occurred in 2009 when the Maersk Alabama, carrying a crew of 23, was hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia while en route to Kenya.

Capt. Richard Phillips was held hostage for four days after the crew regained control of the ship, before he was freed by Navy SEAL sharpshooters.

After the hijacking, nine members of the crew sued, saying Phillips should never have taken the ship through pirate-infested waters. The case was settled out of court.

“Until there’s confirmation that the materials found in the debris field came from the El Faro, we’ll continue to hold that hope,” TOTE Inc. CEO Anthony Chiarello told reporters Sunday night.