Search for answers begins in sinking of US cargo ship

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NTSB Begins Probe Into Missing Cargo Ship


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- On board the 790-foot El Faro when it set out on its doomed voyage into the path of Hurricane Joaquin were five Polish workers whose job was to prepare the engine room for a retrofitting.

Could that work have caused the loss of power that led to the U.S. container ship's sinking?

The vessel's owners say they don't believe so, but the question - along with the captain's decision to plot a course near the storm - will almost certainly be part of an investigation launched Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board into the disaster near the Bahamas that may have claimed 33 lives.

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"We don't have all the answers, I'm sorry for that. I wish we did," Anthony Chiarello, president and CEO of ship owner Tote Inc., told reporters. "But we will find out what happened."

The 41-year-old El Faro was scheduled to be retired from Caribbean duty and retrofitted in the coming months for service between the West Coast and Alaska, said Phil Greene, another Tote executive.

The El Faro and its equally aged sister vessel were being replaced on the Jacksonville-to-Puerto Rico run by two brand-new ships capable of carrying much more cargo and emitting less pollution.

More photos surrounding the sunken cargo ship tragedy:

36 PHOTOS
El Faro cargo ship sinks (Bahamas Missing Ship)
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Search for answers begins in sinking of US cargo ship
In this photograph released by the National Transportation Safety Board, the damaged stern of the sunken freighter El Faro is seen on the seafloor, 15,000-feet deep near the Bahamas. The freighter sunk on Oct. 1, 2015, after losing engine power and getting caught in a Category 4 hurricane. All 33 crew members aboard were lost at sea. Federal investigators are considering launching another search of the wreckage of a freighter. (National Transportation Safety Board via AP)

In this photograph released by the National Transportation Safety Board on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, the detached navigation bridge of the sunken freighter El Faro is seen on the seafloor, 15,000-feet deep near the Bahamas. The freighter sunk on Oct. 1, 2015, after losing engine power and getting caught in a Category 4 hurricane. All 33 crew members aboard were lost at sea. Federal investigators are considering launching another search of the wreckage of a freighter. (National Transportation Safety Board via AP)

In this photograph released by the National Transportation Safety Board on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, the top of the detached navigation bridge of the sunken freighter El Faro is seen on the seafloor, 15,000-feet deep near the Bahamas. The freighter sunk on Oct. 1, 2015, after losing engine power and getting caught in a Category 4 hurricane. All 33 crew members aboard were lost at sea. Federal investigators are considering launching another search of the wreckage of a freighter. (National Transportation Safety Board via AP)
In this photograph released by the National Transportation Safety Board, the damaged stern of the sunken freighter El Faro is seen on the seafloor, 15,000-feet deep near the Bahamas. The freighter sunk on Oct. 1, 2015, after losing engine power and getting caught in a Category 4 hurricane. All 33 crew members aboard were lost at sea. Federal investigators are considering launching another search of the wreckage of a freighter. (National Transportation Safety Board via AP)
El Faro, provided by TOTE Maritime Services
Deborah Dyer, right, is hugged by Judy Marzolf prior at vigil of hope held at Maine Maritime Academy for the missing crew members of the U.S. container ship El Faro, Tuesday evening, Oct. 6, 2015, in Castine, Maine. Dyer's nephew, Dylan Meklin, of Rockland, Maine, is one of the four Maine Maritime Academy graduate who are missing after the El Faro vanished near the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Carla Newkirk, left, hugs Terri Davis during a candlelight vigil for the sunken cargo ship El Faro, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, in Jacksonville, Fla. U.S. safety investigators say the U.S. Navy soon will set out to find El Faro, sunk in Hurricane Joaquin. Newkirk is the daughter of missing crew member Larry Davis while Terri is Davis' wife. (Will Dickey/The Florida Times-Union via AP) 
Evangelist Barbara Ward, center, speaks during a candlelight vigil for the sunken cargo ship El Faro, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, in Jacksonville, Fla. U.S. safety investigators say the U.S. Navy soon will set out to find El Faro, sunk in Hurricane Joaquin. (Will Dickey/The Florida Times-Union via AP)
Maine Maritime Academy students bow their heads during a vigil of hope for the missing crew members of the U.S. container ship El Faro, Tuesday evening, Oct. 6, 2015, in Castine, Maine. The Coast Guard has concluded the vessel sank near the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin. Four graduates of Maine Maritime Academy are missing. They are Capt. Michael Davidson of Windham, Maine, Michael Holland, 25, of Wilton, Maine, Danielle Randolph, 34, of Rockland, Maine, and Dylan Meklin, also of Rockland. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
ROCKLAND, ME - OCTOBER 5: John Gerry, a cousin of Dylan Meklin, is overcome with emotion after a candlelight vigil in honor of Meklin at the Fishermen's Memorial in Rockland Harbor Monday, October 5, 2015. Meklin, along with three other Mainers and 29 other souls, were aboard El Faro, a cargo ship which is believe to have sunk in the path of Hurricane Joaquin. 'I played football with him and everything,' said Gerry. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
ROCKLAND, ME - OCTOBER 5: A candlelight vigil was held at the Fishermen's Memorial in Rockland Harbor for Dylan Meklin, 23, of Rockland, and Danielle Randolph, 34, also of Rockland, Monday, October 5, 2015. The pair are among four Mainers and 29 other souls who were aboard El Faro, a cargo ship which is believe to have sunk in the path of Hurricane Joaquin. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
Maine Maritime Academy students attend a vigil of hope for the missing crew members of the U.S. container ship El Faro, Tuesday evening, Oct. 6, 2015, in Castine, Maine. The Coast Guard has concluded the vessel sank near the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin. Four graduates of Maine Maritime Academy are missing. They are Capt. Michael Davidson of Windham, Maine, Michael Holland, 25, of Wilton, Maine, Danielle Randolph, 34, of Rockland, Maine and Dylan Meklin, also of Rockland. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
CASTINE, ME - OCTOBER 6: Travis Emerson, right, comforts Alexi Galley after a vigil for the crew members of the cargo ship El Faro, which is believed to have sunk off the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin. Four of the ship's crew, Capt. Michael Davidson of Windham, Michael Holland of Wilton, Danielle Randolph of Rockland and Dylan Meklin, both of Rockland, are all graduates of Maine Maritime Academy. (Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
In this Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015 photo made from video and released by the U.S. Coast Guard, a Coast Guard crew member is moved back to the helicopter after investigating a life boat, that was found from the missing ship El Faro. On Monday, four days after the ship vanished, the Coast Guard concluded it sank near the Bahamas in about 15,000 feet of water. One unidentified body in a survival suit was spotted, and the search went on for any trace of the other crew members. The search continued Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard via AP)
In this Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015, photo, made from video and released by the U.S. Coast Guard, a Coast Guard Air Station Miami MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew investigates a life boat that was found from the missing ship El Faro. On Monday, four days after the ship vanished, the Coast Guard concluded it sank near the Bahamas in about 15,000 feet of water. The search continued Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard via AP)
In this Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015 photo made from video and released by the U.S. Coast Guard, a Coast Guard crew member investigates a life boat, that was found from the missing ship El Faro. On Monday, four days after the ship vanished, the Coast Guard concluded it sank near the Bahamas in about 15,000 feet of water. One unidentified body in a survival suit was spotted, and the search went on for any trace of the other crew members. The search continued Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard via AP)
U.S.C.G. Cpt. Mark Fedor, right, and Lt. Cmd. Gabe Somma brief the media on the search for survivors of the cargo ship El Faro that sank during Hurricane Joaquin at the Coast Guard Station at the Opa Locka Airport on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. (Walter Michot/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)
OPA LOCKA, FL - OCTOBER 05: U.S. Coast Guard Captain Mark Fedor (L) and Lt. Commander Gabe Somma walk away after speaking to the media, at U.S. Coast Guard Station Miami, about the sinking of the 790-foot container ship El Faro on October 5, 2015 in Opa Locka, Florida. The Coast Guard has concluded that the ship most likely sank after encountering Hurricane Joaquin last Thursday, but Coast Guard cutters and aircraft and a U.S. Navy plane continued searching for the 33 missing crew members. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Capt. Jeffrey Dixon, Commanding officer U.S. Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville, left, walks with Phil Greene, second from left, President & CEO TOTE Services, operator of El Faro, the missing ship, walk into a meeting with families of the crew Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Jacksonville, Fla. Family and friends of the crew gathered at the local Seafarers union hall to hear updates from officials with the Coast Guard and TOTE, Inc., the company that owns and operates the ship. (Bob Mack/The Florida Times-Union via AP)
Phil Greene, President of TOTE Services & CEO, left, and Tim Nolan, President of TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, right, listen as Anthony Chiarello, President & CEO, TOTE, Inc. speaks about about the missing cargo ship El Faro outside the Seafarer's International Union hall in Jacksonville, Fla., Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015. Authorities lost contact with the El Faro early Thursday as the ship sailed through the Bahamas at the height of the Hurricane Joaquin storm as it sailed from its homeport in Jacksonville, Fla., to San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Bruce Lipsky/The Florida Times-Union via AP) 
Families have gathered at the Seafarers Union Hall Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015, in Jacksonville, Fla., waiting for news on the crew of 33 aboard the missing cargo ship El Faro. The ship has not been heard from since it lost power and was taking on water in seas churned up by Hurricane Joaquin. (Bruce Lipsky/Florida Times-Union via AP)
Rear Adm. Scott Buschman, commander of the Coast Guard 7th District, receives an update brief for the missing cargo ship El Faro at the Coast Guard 7th District in Miami, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015. The ship was heading from Jacksonville, Fla, to San Juan, Puerto Rico when it was battered by waves. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Jon-Paul/U.S. Coast Guard via AP)
Map locates Crooked Island, in the Bahamas, where a missing cargo ship was last seen; 1c x 2 inches; 46.5 mm x 50 mm;
#BreakingNews @USCGSoutheast C-130 just lands, reports 225 SqMi debris field of styrofoam, wood, cargo, other items. http://t.co/4us2EP4L4C
#BreakingNews: @USCGSoutheast MH-60 refueling at sea as search crews cover 70K+ sqNM in the search for 790' #ElFaro http://t.co/6ICMmxraO2
#BreakingNews @USCGSoutheast Video Release: Recovery of #ElFaro life ring. http://t.co/X0RfPsheTM
#BreakingNews: @USCGSoutheast search for #ElFaro has covered more than 30K sqNM. http://t.co/hBlBWAl0GK http://t.co/9H4PVf4wyM
#BreakingNews @USCGSoutheast aircrew searching IVO #hurricane #Joaquin for container ship w/ crew of 33. http://t.co/cpEfzRi5G1
Family, union and company officials wait outside the Seafarer's International Union hall, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015, in Jacksonville, Fla., as an intensive search resumed Sunday in the southeastern Bahamas for a U.S. cargo ship with 33 people on board. The ship has not been heard from since it lost power and was taking on water as it was battered in fierce seas churned up by Hurricane Joaquin. (AP Photo/Jason Dearen)
Mary Shevory, talks about her daughter Maryette Wright's love of the sea in Jacksonville, Fla., Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015. Wright was a crew member of the missing cargo ship El Faro. Authorities lost contact with the El Faro early Thursday as the ship sailed through the Bahamas at the height of the Hurricane Joaquin storm as it sailed from its homeport in Jacksonville, Fla., to San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Bruce Lipsky/The Florida Times-Union via AP) 
As the sun begins to set as television crews set up their lights while waiting for an update on the crew members aboard the missing cargo ship El Faro outside the Seafarer's International Union hall in Jacksonville, Fla., Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015. Authorities lost contact with the El Faro early Thursday as the ship sailed through the Bahamas at the height of the Hurricane Joaquin storm as it sailed from its homeport in Jacksonville, Fla., to San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Bruce Lipsky/The Florida Times-Union via AP)
This satellite image taken Friday, Oct. 2, 2015 at 8:45 a.m. EDT, and released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows Hurricane Joaquin of the Bahamas. The Category 4 storm ripped off roofs, uprooted trees and unleashed heavy flooding as it hurled torrents of rain across the eastern and central Bahamas on Friday, and the U.S. Coast Guard said it was searching for a cargo ship with 33 people aboard that went missing during the storm. (NOAA via AP)
Petty Officer 1st Class Antonio Lockhart, watchstander at Coast Guard 7th District Command Center, updates search information regarding the missing cargo ship El Faro at the Coast Guard 7th District Command Center in Miami, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015. The ship was heading from Jacksonville, Fla, to San Juan, Puerto Rico when it was battered by waves. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Jon-Paul/U.S. Coast Guard via AP)
Wind and rain from Hurricane Joaquin affect Nassau, Bahamas, Friday, Oct. 2, 2015. Hurricane Joaquin dumped torrential rains across the eastern and central Bahamas on Friday as a Category 4 storm. (AP Photo/Tim Aylen)
The sky is overcast on south Eleuthera island, Bahamas, early Friday, Oct. 2, 2015 as Hurricane Joaquin dumps torrential rains across the eastern and central Bahamas as a Category 4 storm. Streets were largely deserted as people remained hunkered down on the island of Eleuthera, which was bracing for heavy winds later Friday. (AP Photo/Ben Fox)
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When the El Faro left Jacksonville on Sept. 29, the five Polish workers came along with 28 U.S. crew members to do some preparatory work in the engine room, according to Greene. He gave no details on the nature of their work.

But "I don't believe based on the work they were doing that they would have had anything to do with what affected the propulsion," said Greene, a retired Navy admiral.

The NTSB dispatched a team from Washington to investigate.

"It's just a tragic, tragic situation," NTSB vice chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr said.

The El Faro had no history of engine failure, Greene said, and the company said the vessel was modernized in 1992 and 2006. Company records show it underwent its last annual Coast Guard inspection in March.

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The American Bureau of Shipping, a nonprofit organization that sets safety and other standards for ships, did full hull and machinery inspections in February with no red flags, the company said.

F. John Nicoll, a retired captain who spent years piloting the run to Puerto Rico, said he doubts the age of the El Faro was a factor, noting that there are many older ships plying U.S. waters without incident.

He predicted the NTSB will look into whether company pressure to deliver the cargo on time despite the menacing weather played a role in the tragedy - something Tote executives have denied.

"Time and money are an important thing" in the shipping industry, Nicoll said. He said there should be emails and other messages between the captain and the company to help answer the question.

The Coast Guard, meanwhile, continued searching by sea and air for any sign of survivors. The ship is believed to have gone down in 15,000 feet of water after reporting its last known position Thursday. One unidentified body has been found.

Tote executives said the captain, Michael Davidson, planned a heading that would have enabled the El Faro to bypass Joaquin if the ship hadn't lost power. That left it vulnerable to the storm's 140 mph winds and battering waves of more than 50 feet.

They said Davidson was in regular communication before the storm with the company, which can override a captain's decisions.

Davidson attended the Maine Maritime Academy and has a home in Windham, Maine.

"He was a very squared-away sailor, very meticulous with details, very prudent, which is important when you're working on the water. He took his job seriously," said Nick Mavadones, a friend since childhood and general manager of Casco Bay Lines, where he and Davidson worked together.

Still, seafarers who have long experience in the Caribbean say its weather can be treacherous.

"It can go from calm, in a matter of five or six hours, to hell," said Angel Ortiz, who retired as a merchant mariner after 39 years.

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Anderson reported from Miami. Associated Press video journalist Tony Winton in Jacksonville and AP writer Connie Cass in Washington contributed to this story.

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