JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The Coast Guard broke the news to grieving family members Wednesday that it was abandoning the search for the 33 mariners aboard a U.S. container ship that sank last week during Hurricane Joaquin, and investigators turned their attention to finding the vessel's data recorder 3 miles down at the bottom of the sea.
An intensive search by air and sea over tens of thousands of square miles turned up one unidentified body in a survival suit and a heavily damaged lifeboat but no sign of survivors from the 790-foot El Faro, which was last heard from nearly from a week ago as it was being tossed around in rough seas. (Story continues below)
By preparing to end its search at sunset, the Coast Guard all but confirmed family members' worst fears — that all hands were lost. On board were 28 crew members from the U.S. and five from Poland.
"Any decision to suspend a search is painful," Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor said. "They did all they could."
Even before the announcement, hopes of finding anyone alive were fading.
"The ship went down. And there's no questioning the outcome of that. The ship has gone down, took everybody with it. There's really no speculation to be made," said Mary Shevory, mother of crew member Mariette Wright.
Robert Green, father of LaShawn Rivera, held out hope despite the Coast Guard decision: "Miracles do happen, and it's God's way only. I'm prayerful, hopeful and still optimistic."
President Barack Obama promised the "full support of the U.S. government" as officials investigate the sinking of the cargo ship. In a statement issued Wednesday evening, Obama said the families of the crew members lost at sea deserve answers, and those who work at sea must be kept safe.
The El Faro went down in 15,000 feet of water east of the Bahamas last Thursday after losing propulsion while attempting to outrun Joaquin along the ship's regular route from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico, according to ship owner Tote Maritime and the Coast Guard. The captain reported the ship was listing and taking on water through an open hatch. Then transmissions ceased.
The key to the mystery of what caused the ship to stall and sink may be in the voyage data recorder, similar to the "black box" on an airliner. The device, presumably pinging away in the blackness and crushing pressure on the sea floor, has a battery life of 30 days after it hits the water.
Assuming the device can be located, the National Transportation Safety Board will work with the Coast Guard, Navy and other agencies to devise a way to bring it up, probably using a remote-controlled, unmanned submersible capable of diving great depths.
Among the questions raised in the wake of the tragedy: What caused the ship to lose power? Did pressure to deliver the cargo on time play a role in the captain's decision to press ahead? Was the ship's advanced age — more than 40 years old — a factor? And was the mechanical trouble caused by work that was being done in the engine room at the time?
The recorder, required for all large ships since 2002, would contain radio communications, command discussions on the bridge, the ship's speed and heading, the condition of its hull, wind speed and radar readings. Generally the recorders retain information from the 12 hours before they enter the water.
"We want to find every bit of information that we possibly can," NTSB vice chair Bella Dinh-Zarr said. "We will be here as long as it takes."
The ship left Jacksonville on Sept. 29 while Joaquin was still a tropical storm. Joaquin quickly developed into a powerful Category 4 hurricane, but Tote officials say its captain, Michael Davidson, had an acceptable plan to bypass the storm that would have worked had the ship not lost power amid 140 mph winds and 50-foot waves.
The NTSB said a key part of the investigation is learning how to prevent similar tragedies. Family members said they hope so, too.
"I am hoping other companies will take a good look at when they're going to ship out, when they're going to set sail," Shevory said. "And not do it with a storm coming that can potentially become a hurricane."
Anderson reported from Miami. Associated Press writer Jason Dearen contributed from Gainesville, Fla.