US Coast Guard, Navy search for ship lost off Bahamas in Hurricane Joaquin with 33 on board

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The Coast Guard is pulling out the stops in searching for a freighter with 33 crew members that's gone missing near the center of Hurricane Joaquin. Officials say the ship went out of radio contact near the eye of the storm. (Oct. 2)

Heavy rains soaked Maryland's Eastern Shore overnight Friday, despite new forecasts predicting Hurricane Joaquin will curve out into the Atlantic while moving north and weakening in coming days. (Oct. 3)

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NASSAU, Bahamas — An intensive search was under way Saturday in the waters of the southeastern Bahamas for a cargo ship with 33 people on board that lost power and began taking on water during Hurricane Joaquin and has not been heard from since.

U.S. Coast Guard and Navy aircraft combed the Atlantic Ocean around the lightly populated Crooked Island for the El Faro, which was en route from Jacksonville, Florida to San Juan, Puerto Rico at the height of the powerful storm. Authorities lost contact with the ship early Thursday after the crew reported that the ship was listing at 15 degrees, officials said.

In its last communication, the crew reported that the vessel had lost propulsion and had taken on water but it was being pumped successfully and the list of the ship was "reported to be manageable," TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, the operator of the El Faro, said in a statement.

The El Faro departed Sept. 29, when Joaquin was still a tropical storm, with a crew made of 28 from the United States and five from Poland. The company described them as experienced and "more than equipped to handle situations such as changing weather."

Coast Guard officials dispatched planes and helicopters to the area with the storm now moving to the northeast away from the Bahamas.

The 790-foot (241-meter) El Faro was battered by 20- to 30-foot waves (up to 9-meter) as Joaquin was a Category 4 storm. It later weakened to a Category 3 before regaining strength again on Saturday.

Coast Guard officials said the search, across about 850 square nautical miles of ocean, had to be called off Friday because of darkness. They resumed the effort early Saturday, concentrating around Crooked Island and Long Island.

"Hopefully, today they will have a bit better vision as the hurricane heads north," said Petty Officer John-Paul Rios, a Coast Guard spokesman in Miami.

The search area is vast and the effort is hampered by the fact that there are few vessels out there because of the rough weather, said Chris Lloyd, the operations manager of the Bahamas Air Sea and Rescue Association, which was not helping look for the ship because the area is beyond its reach.

"The fact that there has been no communications is not good news," Lloyd said.

The vessel carried 685 containers and had on board an EPIRB, which transmits distress signals. An initial ping was received Thursday morning, but no new ones have followed, according to Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss. He said it gave an initial location but did not continue transmitting, possibly because of bad weather.

"If it can't break through all those clouds to reach the satellite, we're not going to get a good fix on it," he said, adding that the Coast Guard was proceeding with caution because of the weather and sea conditions. "We've got to keep our crews as safe as possible."

There were three C-130 planes, one helicopter and a Navy P-8 airplane involved in the search.

The U.S. Coast Guard previously saved 12 sailors who were forced to abandon a sinking cargo ship late Thursday, hoisting them into a helicopter from a life raft in churning waters off northwest Haiti. In a Saturday statement, officials said they had accounted for all crew members on the Bolivian-flagged ship.

Lloyd said that several smaller vessels reported missing during the storm also had been located and their crews found to be safe.

As the threat of the storm receded on a path that would take it away from the U.S. mainland, people in the southeastern Bahamas were in cleanup mode. Joaquin destroyed houses, uprooted trees and unleashed heavy flooding as it hurled torrents of rain, and officials were investigating reports of shelters being damaged and flooded.

There had been no reports of fatalities or injuries so far, said Capt. Stephen Russell, the director of the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency.

The Bahamas government said it was inspecting airports first for damage and would later look at other infrastructure, adding that it would take time to compile information about overall damage from numerous islands. Officials have already reopened more than a dozen small airports across the island chain.

On Saturday afternoon, the storm was centered about 550 miles (890 kilometers) southwest of Bermuda and was moving northeast at 18 mph (30 kph). It strengthened again into a Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph (250 kph), according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. The storm is expected to lose strength in upcoming days, but a tropical storm warning and a hurricane watch were issued for Bermuda.

The eye of Joaquin was expected to pass west of Bermuda on Sunday, but the storm still might veer closer to the island, forecasters warned.

Rick Knabb, director of the hurricane center, said Joaquin was expected to pass well offshore from the eastern seaboard.

"We no longer have any models forecasting the hurricane to come into the East Coast," he said. "But we are still going to have some bad weather."

In addition, the entire East Coast will experience dangerous surf and rip currents through the weekend, he said.

"Joaquin is going to generate a lot of wave energy," Knabb said.

Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Associated Press writer Matt Sedensky in Miami contributed to this report.

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