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U.S. Navy launches salvage operation for sunken cargo ship

The cargo ship El Faro is docked in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 16, 2009, in this picture taken by Allen Baker.

Allen Baker/MarineTraffic

MIAMI -- A U.S. Navy vessel was expected to depart Monday on a search for a missing cargo ship that was lost in the Atlantic Ocean during Hurricane Joaquin with 33 crew members on board.

The USNS Apache will be taking equipment and investigators to an area near Crooked Island in the southeastern Bahamas in an attempt to locate the 790-foot cargo ship El Faro and retrieve its data recorder, said Christopher Johnson, for the Naval Sea Systems Command.

The Apache was leaving from Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek in Virginia and should take about two days to reach the area where teams will search for the ship in an area of about 100 square miles and a depth of 15,000 feet, Johnson said.

The El Faro was nearly 40 years old, and some ex-crew members had complained of leaks and cracks on the ship.

Phil Greene, president and CEO of ship owner Tote Services Inc., said, "Regrettably he [Captain Michael Davidson] suffered a mechanical problem with his main propulsion system, which left him in the path of the storm. We do not know when his engine problems began to occur, nor the reasons for his engine problems."

The last message from the ship came from the captain who reported the El Faro was listing slightly at 15 degrees in strong winds and heavy seas.

A heavily damaged lifeboat from the El Faro was discovered with no one aboard. The ship had two lifeboats capable of holding 43 people each.

Also spotted were an oil sheen, cargo containers, a partly submerged life raft - the ship carried five rafts, each capable of holding 17 people - life jackets and life rings, authorities said.

The USNS Apache will be taking a towed pinger locator to locate the ship's data recorder as well as side scan sonar and a remotely operated vehicle along with investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and the American Bureau of Shipping.

El Faro was on its regular cargo run from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, when it lost power and began taking on water on Oct. 1 in extremely rough seas churned up by the storm.