PORTLAND, Maine — Friends, family and officials reacted with sadness Wednesday afternoon as the search for crew members of the cargo ship El Faro was called off.
The decision was announced in Jacksonville, Florida, by U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board officials. The Coast Guard and military personnel had been searching for the vessel and possible survivors since receiving a distress call from the ship on the morning of Oct. 1 as Hurricane Joaquin bore down on the Bahamas.
“That [decision] is certainly weighing heavily on everyone’s mind,” U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said Wednesday. “Most of the family members who can be here are in Jacksonville. I know the company paid to have the families flown down. The company has met with them regularly, the Coast Guard has met with them, and now the NTSB has a liaison.”
When Portland City Councilor Nick Mavodones, a retired ferry boat captain, heard that El Faro was missing in Hurricane Joaquin, he had to stop and catch his breath. His childhood friend Michael Davidson of Windham was captain of the cargo vessel.
“My heart jumped,” Mavodones said Wednesday. “We’re still shaken, frankly. It’s been on my mind and will remain on my mind. I’m sure [ending the search] was a very difficult decision to make.”
El Faro left Jacksonville for Puerto Rico on Sept. 29 with a crew of 33, including Davidson and three other Maine residents. All four Mainers on the ship are graduates of Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.
“Our community will grieve this together,” William J. Brennan, president of the school, said after Wednesday’s announcement that the search effort was terminated. “We will stay together and go on.”
Other El Faro crew members from Maine include Danielle Randolph, 34, of Rockland, a 2005 Maine Maritime graduate; Michael Holland, 25, of Wilton, a 2012 Maine Maritime graduate; and Dylan Meklin, 23, who graduated from Rockland High School in 2010 and from Maine Maritime in May.
A week of not knowing has been a nightmare, Deb Roberts, Holland’s mother, said while hugging Laurie Bobillot, Randolph’s mother, according to WGME.
“It’s the worse that we could have ever imagined,” Roberts said from Jacksonville. “It’s been six long days — hoping and praying. It’s been living in limbo for six days. Even though it’s not the answer we wanted, we have answers now. We will always hold out for a miracle.”
One crew member’s body was found Sunday along with a badly damaged lifecraft. A second survival suit marked with the name of the ship was found Wednesday morning, along with an unmarked life preserver and other debris.
Other members of Maine’s congressional delegation were quick to react to the news.
“I am deeply saddened to learn from the U.S. Coast Guard that no survivors have been found. All of us in Maine and across the country are touched by this terrible tragedy,” U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said in an email. “My heart goes out to the family members and friends, some of whom I know well, and to the Maine Maritime Academy, from which all the Maine crew members graduated.”
She added that she was grateful to the men and women of the Coast Guard, U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force “who spared no effort in their extensive search for any potential survivors.”
“I will continue to pray for the crew members of El Faro, their families, friends and local communities,” U.S. Rep Bruce Poliquin said in an email. “I join my fellow Mainers in keeping all El Faro crew members in our hearts and minds.”
“I am deeply saddened that no survivors have been found,” said Sen. Angus King. “Like everyone in Maine, my thoughts and prayers are with the family, friends, and loved ones of the El Faro’s crew members. My heart goes out to them and to the Maine Maritime Academy community during this tremendously difficult time.”
The NTSB arrived Tuesday in Jacksonville and has more than a dozen investigators looking into “not just what happened, but why,” Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr said Tuesday night during a news conference. She reiterated that during a joint news conference with the Coast Guard on Wednesday.
Pingree was briefed by Dinh-Zarr for about 30 minutes Wednesday morning and learned that the Coast Guard would be calling off the El Faro search at the end of the day.
The likelihood that anyone will be found alive out at sea without water for a week is bleak, she said.
“We asked them a lot of questions about the black box, the voyage data recorder,” Pingree added later about the briefing.
The recorder is similar to an aircraft’s black box and provides a record of the last 12 hours of engine orders and communications from the bridge.
Dinh-Zarr said a voyage data recorder should start pinging back its location once it comes in contact with water, but there has been no contact from the El Faro’s recorder to date. She added that the investigation would be difficult given that the ship sank in an unknown location, possibly in waters 15,000 feet deep. Its last known location was off Crooked Island in the Bahamas.
“The Navy has been called in. They have some sophisticated diving equipment that can go down to 20,000 feet,” Pingree said.
That provides hope to families that eventually they may find out what happened, she added.
According to Mavodones, his family and the Davidsons spent their summers on Great Diamond Island in Casco Bay, and he and Davidson worked together at Casco Bay Lines, which runs a ferry service to and from the islands.
Davidson started as a deckhand and later became a ferry boat captain, but he aspired to bigger and better things, said Mavodones, who is operations manager for Casco Bay Lines.
“He wanted to sail the deep sea,” his longtime friend said. “He left to go to [Maine Maritime] because he wanted to ascend to a higher license.”
Davidson graduated from South Portland High School and worked at the ferry unit until the mid-1980s, when he went to the maritime academy in Castine.
“When I worked with him, he was a stickler for details. Meticulous,” said Mavodones, who is a retired boat captain. “He was a skilled mariner and a top-notch captain.”
He said his friend was doomed once El Faro lost its engines in heavy seas, which would make any vessel uncontrollable.
The last communication between the 790-foot steamship and the mainland was made at 7:20 a.m. Oct. 1, when Davidson reported that the cargo carrier had lost propulsion and was listing by 15 degrees.
When the ship left port carrying 391 cargo containers and 294 trailer and cars, Joaquin was a tropical storm located about 400 miles away from the Bahamas.
TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, which operates the El Faro, posted that “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 next day, Joaquin had developed into a hurricane. A Sept. 29 email Randolph sent to her mother read: “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.”
The El Faro encountered Hurricane Joaquin as it slowly did a U-turn near the Bahamas, the captain said in his request for help. He said the ship had taken on water but his crew had contained the flooding.
The ship’s Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon has not transmitted a signal since 7:30 a.m. Thursday.
Anthony Chiarello, president and CEO of TOTE Inc., said Wednesday at a Jacksonville news conference that everyone in his company had hoped, along with family members and loved ones, for a different outcome.
“Since [Oct. 1] , every individual in the TOTE organization has held out hope that the crew of the El Faro would be found safe,” the company president said, just before thanking the Coast Guard and other agencies for their efforts.
“The Coast Guard’s announcement will not change the support that TOTE extends to those affected by this tragic event: though the search may be over, their grief, and ours, is not,” Chiarello said, adding the company is fully complying with the NTSB’s investigation.
Pingree said that many people in Maine, with its numerous coastal communities, will be affected by the news that the crew is believed to be dead.
“I just think this hits particularly hard in Maine,” Pingree said. “Virtually everyone knows someone who works on a boat or in the industry. They just feel it more differently thinking about this terrible tragedy.”
The 33 deaths associated with the El Faro make it the biggest marine casualty since the 1983 sinking of the Marine Electric on Feb. 12, 1983, off the coast of Virginia, where 31 of 33 crewmembers died, she said.
“This is very significant,” Pingree said.
Family and friends will have to wait a year to 18 months for the NTSB’s report about what the federal agency believes happened and, according to Mavodones, they may never have the answers they want.
“It’s a rough patch for a lot of people,” Mavodones said.