Coast Guard Located Debris Field in Search for Cargo Ship That Went Missing After Facing Hurricane Joaquin

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NOAA's GOES-East satellite captured this visible image of Hurricane Joaquin affecting the Bahamas on Oct. 1 at 1255 UTC. (Credit: NASA)

Breaking News update:

The U.S. Coast Guard reports it has located a 225-square mile debris field comprised of Styrofoam, wood, cargo and other items. It is unclear whether the debris found belongs to the missing container ship El Faro, which was last heard from Thursday as it sailed near the Bahamas with Hurricane Joaquin approaching.

Original story:

The U.S. Coast Guard and Navy teams looking for the missing container ship, El Faro, have found “multiple items” during their search, including an oil sheen, the Coast Guard said Sunday.

There is no indication at this point, however, that the items are from the missing vessel.

“From initial reports, we’ve found life jackets, containers, and an oil sheen,” Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma of the Coast Guard said. “We located the objects via aircraft. Cutters are still fighting the weather getting there. We do have one cutter investigating the oil sheen.”

Somma said he did not have any more details. Specifically, he was asked about the size of the containers and the descriptions of the life rafts.

“With every passing hour, the search expands. When you’re searching for something in the ocean, tracking the drift patterns and dealing with weather elements — things are moving,” he said, describing the challenges of the search, which he said is “very much” still a search-and-rescue mission.

The company that owns the ship, TOTE, released a statement saying that one of TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico’s ships, the El Yunque, and a contracted tugboat had reached El Faro’s last known vicinity.

“The two vessels discovered a container, which appears to be from the El Faro, and observed what appears to be an oil sheen,” the statement said. “At this time there has been no sighting of the El Faro or any life boats.”

The El Faro, which was carrying a crew of 28 Americans and five Polish nationals, last made contact three days ago as it was near the Bahamas. It went missing as Hurricane Joaquin, with winds blowing at 130 mph, passed over the archipelago.

A majority of the crew has ties to Jacksonville, Florida, said President Phil Greene of TOTE Services.

On Saturday night, the Coast Guard reported the first piece of hopeful news.

An airplane located a life ring from the El Faro about 75 miles northeast of the ship’s last known position, the Coast Guard said in a press release. A Coast Guard MH-60 helicopter recovered the life ring and confirmed it belonged to the missing ship.

“It validates our search efforts, and while we are disappointed we did not find the ship today we are hopeful,” Coast Guard spokeswoman Marilyn Fajardo said. “Tomorrow, we will have three C-130s flying and the Navy will be assisting again with a P-8 aircraft.”

The 790-foot ship and its crew set out Tuesday on what ordinarily should have been a routine voyage from Jacksonville, Florida, to Puerto Rico. But then Hurricane Joaquin barreled into the area, growing in strength as it came.

Five aircraft on Saturday searched with radar over the tempestuous seas for the El Faro, which last reported its position and problems Thursday morning.

“The Coast Guard has been doing search and rescue for more than 200 years, and this is right up their wheelhouse,” Chief Petty Officer Bobby Nash said.

Three C-130 planes, an H-60 helicopter and a Navy’s P-8 plane were all involved in the search, Nash said. The search teams have weathered 150-mph gusts, 30-foot waves and heavy rain.

Though family members told CNN affiliate WFOX/WSVN that they questioned why the ship sailed into what was then a tropical storm, Greene told the station that the boat’s captain felt the conditions were favorable and “was very confident the ship was doing well, the crew was quite up to date.”

The Coast Guard said it received a report Thursday morning that the ship had lost propulsion and was taking on water, but that the flooding had been contained.

The ship was reported to be in distress somewhere near Crooked Island in the Bahamas. All communications were lost at 7:20 a.m. ET.