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Family Of El Faro Crew Gather In Jacksonville As Coast Guard Searches

The U.S. Coast Guard is continuing to search for survivors of the sunken cargo ship El Faro. The captain reported a mechanical failure shortly before the ship drifted into the path of Hurricane Joaquin last week. Searchers have spotted an empty life boat and other floatation devices, along with at least one human body believed to be a crew member.

On Tuesday, family and friends of the El Faro crew were gathering in Jacksonville to await the latest news.

Outside the International Seafarers Union hall, Terrence Bing said he knows a couple of guys who were on El Faro. Bing himself worked on the ship back when it was named the Northern Lights, he says, and it’s about 40 years old.

“When I rode, that was rough. That thing had you rolling, man, rocking,” he remembers.  “I can’t imagine being in it in no hurricane.”

Nearby at a hotel, Claudette Riley has come from Massachusetts to await word about her sister. She says 51-year-old Mariette Wright was one of two women on El Faro’s 33-person crew. They last spoke a week ago.

“She didn’t bring up the storm to me, but I know she was afraid of hurricanes like everybody would be. She said they’re a scary thing to go through,” Riley says.

She says her sister fell in love with the sea as a teenager and had been working on boats nearly her entire life.

“When I talked to her Tuesday night, she had spent the day cleaning the boiler. So she’s a hard worker, tougher than anybody I know,” Riley says. “She can work as hard as any man on the boat there.”

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating what led the ship to lose its propulsion system and sail into the path of a strengthening storm.

Jacksonville University maritime professor Jeremy Stalker says it’s hard to imagine waves capable of swamping a ship that large.  

“Next time you’re standing next to your house, probably about 28-feet tall, double the size of your house from the top to the bottom and that’s how big some of these waves are,” he says.

The National Transportation Safety Board will hold a briefing Tuesday night in Jacksonville to discuss what investigators have learned so far.

Jessica Palombo supervises local news gathering and production, podcasts and web editorial content for WJCT News, ADAPT and Jacksonville Today. She is an award-winning writer and journalist with bylines including NPR, Experience Magazine, and The Gainesville Sun. She has a master’s degree in broadcast and digital journalism from Syracuse University and is an alumna of the University of Florida. A nearly lifelong resident of Jacksonville, she considers herself lucky to be raising her own children in her hometown. Follow Jessica Palombo on Twitter: @JaxJessicaP