A massive air and sea search off the coast of the Bahamas on Monday revealed no signs of survivors from the missing cargo ship El Faro, which is believed to have sunk in the path of Hurricane Joaquin with four Mainers and 29 other crew members on board.

The body of one crew member was found in a survival suit floating in the debris field near the Bahamas but was not identifiable, according to the Coast Guard. Empty survival suits also were found, along with one of the ship’s two lifeboats, empty and heavily damaged.

Crew members’ families and Coast Guard officials were not giving up hope of finding survivors.

“We are assuming that the vessel has sunk,” said the Coast Guard spokesman, Capt. Mark Fedor. “We’re still looking for survivors or any signs of life.”

More than 200 people gathered for an emotional vigil Monday evening in Rockland, the hometown of two of the missing mariners. The mood was somber, a mix of hope and sadness that two of their own might be lost at sea.

The ship was carrying mixed cargo from Florida to Puerto Rico as Hurricane Joaquin moved toward the Bahamas. Its crew reported Thursday morning that the ship had lost power and taken on water, and was listing to one side. The call came as the hurricane paused east of the Bahamas, gathering strength and crossing the path of the ship as it turned to the north.

While maintaining hope that crew members may still be found, Fedor was sober about the odds of success.

If someone had been able to get off the sinking ship, he said, “They would have been abandoning ship into a Category 4 hurricane. So you’re talking up to 140 mile-an-hour winds, seas upwards of 50 feet and visibility basically zero. These are challenging conditions to survive in.”

The El Faro was equipped with 46 survival suits, more than enough for the 33 crew members, but Fedor said that mariners could survive for only four or five days even in warm water. The average water temperature around the Bahamas this time of year is 78 to 80 degrees. If crew members went into the water Thursday, then Monday would have been the fifth day.

The vessel’s owners said Monday that Capt. Michael Davidson of Windham planned to bypass Hurricane Joaquin, but the ship suffered a mechanical failure that disabled it and left it adrift in the path of the powerful storm, The Associated Press reported.

Phil Greene, president and CEO of TOTE Services, the ship’s Puerto Rico-based owner, told the AP that Davidson had conferred last week with El Faro’s sister ship, which had been returning to Jacksonville along a similar route, and he determined the weather was good enough for El Faro’s trip.

Capt. Michael Davidson

Capt. Michael Davidson

“Regrettably, he suffered a mechanical problem with his main propulsion system, which left him in the path of the storm,” Greene told the AP. “We do not know when his engine problems began to occur, nor the reasons for his engine problems.”

The captain, who has 20 years of experience on cargo ships, told company officials that the crew was removing water, the AP reported. He also told officials that the El Faro was listing 15 degrees in strong winds and seas, and that some water had entered through a hatch that popped open.

SHIP DEEPLY CONNECTED TO MAINE

The cargo ship has significant ties to Maine. The company has not released the list of El Faro’s crew, but family members have confirmed there are four missing Mainers: Davidson, the ship’s 53-year-old captain, and crew members Michael Holland, 25, of Wilton, Danielle Randolph, 34, of Rockland and Dylan Meklin, 23, of Rockland. All four graduated from Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.

Deb Roberts, Holland’s mother, wrote on Facebook that despite Monday’s grim news, she was holding out for a miracle.

Michael Holland

Michael Holland

“As you all have probably heard by now, we received word this morning that the Coast Guard and Tote Services believe that the SS El Faro sunk in Hurricane Joaquin,” the post read. “The hope we hold onto now is that they will find survivors today. Evidence is showing that the crew put themselves in the best possible position to survive by getting into their immersion suits. Miracles happen. Keep the faith! Prayers needed more than ever today.”

Gov. Paul LePage released a statement saying he has not given up hope.

“The First Lady and I are praying for all those aboard, including our four Mainers. During this very difficult time, our hearts go out to the families and friends of our fellow Mainers, as well as the other 29 crew members,” LePage said.

The 790-foot El Faro left Jacksonville, Florida, on Sept. 29, carrying 391 containers topside and 294 trailers and cars below deck. It was bound for San Juan, about 1,300 miles to the southeast, but ran into the hurricane less than halfway into the trip.

Crew members made a satellite distress call Thursday morning from about 35 nautical miles northeast of Crooked Island in the Bahamas to report the loss of power. That was the last communication from the ship.

Randolph wrote an email to her mother just before the ship began taking on water.

“Not sure if you’ve been following the weather at all,” she wrote in an email to Laurie Bobillot, as reported in The Washington Post, “but there is a hurricane out here and we are heading straight into it. Winds are super bad and seas are not great.”

INTENSE SEARCH TO CONTINUE

Fedor, the Coast Guard spokesman, said officials were not giving up hope. Three cutters were in the water Monday morning, and search planes were flying overhead.

“We are not going to discount somebody’s will to survive,” he said.

Capt. Nathan Gandy, Maine Maritime Academy’s commandant of midshipmen, said it is possible to survive abandoning a ship in a Category 4 hurricane.

Danielle Randolph

Danielle Randolph

“Our cadets spend four years learning safety and survival skills that would come into play in an event like this,” Gandy said in an email Monday night. “Things like basic lifeboat skills, ocean survival and survival equipment courses with practical labs, and drills conducted onboard our training ship are all used to develop the cadets’ ability to operate in a crisis or emergency situation.”

A trained crew member can put a survival suit on in 60 seconds or less, Gandy said.

Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma, a Coast Guard spokesman in Florida, said the discovery of one body in a survival suit gave searchers hope.

“It’s an important point because clearly they had time to put on a survival suit,” Somma said Monday evening. “They were in a dire situation and recognized the urgency of putting on their survival gear.”

BODY HAD TO BE LEFT IN WATER

Somma said a Coast Guard rescue swimmer was lowered from a helicopter to the location where the body in the survival suit was floating.

“They had to make a gut-wrenching decision to leave the scene and try to find someone who was alive,” Somma said. The rescue swimmer and crew were running out of daylight and were receiving reports of other objects floating in the area. “That is our No. 1 priority, saving life at sea.”

Somma said the Coast Guard would continue to search through the night Monday and into Tuesday morning, with aircraft and cutters set to resume the search at first light.

“Our crews are still searching and holding onto hope that we will find someone,” Somma said.

The National Transportation Safety Board will be sending a team of investigators to Florida on Tuesday to lead an investigation, Somma said.

Dylan Meklin

Dylan Meklin

At the vigil in Rockland, with the harbor in the background at sunset, many were there to support Meklin, a multi-sport high school athlete who went to college just a little ways up the coast at Maine Maritime.

Josh Elwell was a classmate of Meklin’s at both Rockland and MMA. He’s now a merchant mariner.

“I just talked to him on Tuesday before he left,” Elwell said. “I’m still hoping for the best, hoping he’s out there somewhere. We train for this, so if anyone can come through it’s those guys.”

Deborah Dyer, Meklin’s aunt, organized the vigil. She said she was touched by the outpouring of support from her nephew’s friends and his longtime girlfriend, Jordan Dehlinger, also a Maine Maritime Academy student, who was in Florida awaiting any news.

Keenan Eaton, a former roommate of Meklin’s at Maine Maritime, said as long as there is a lifeboat and rafts unaccounted for, he’ll still believe his friend is alive.

“If he’s out there, I know he’ll be the one keeping everyone calm,” Eaton said.

Several family members, including Deb Roberts and Laurie Bobillot, went to Jacksonville to be closer to the search.

COLLEGE WORRIED FOR ‘SHIPMATES’

Maine Maritime Academy President William J. Brennan met with students and staff members Monday afternoon in the student center.

“We are all mariners and I know we are distressed by what we have heard today, but we are also encouraged that the search-and-rescue effort continues,” Brennan said in his prepared remarks. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the crew of the El Faro and their families and their loved ones – we are all shipmates.”

A vigil of hope will be held on the campus at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

The ship was built in 1974 and originally named the Puerto Rico, according to TOTE’s website. It was renamed El Faro – “lighthouse” in Spanish – in 2006, and has been used primarily to carry groceries and automobiles between the United States and Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In addition to the survival suits, the ship had two 43-passenger lifeboats and five life rafts with a total capacity of 106 passengers.

930725 ElFaroDisasterFix1015

Debris from the ship was found during searches over the weekend, including life jackets, wood, containers and an oil sheen. Based on information obtained during those searches, Fedor said, the ship is presumed to have sunk near its last known position.

The search for survivors is focused on the debris field near the El Faro’s last known location, which spans about 300 square nautical miles, and a smaller area about 60 miles to the north, Fedor said. The depth of the ocean there is nearly 3 miles.

Involved in the search are two Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules aircraft and an MH-60 Jayhawk from Air Station Clearwater in Florida, two Navy P-8 fixed-wing airplanes, two 210-foot Coast Guard cutters – the Northland of Portsmouth, Virginia, and the Resolute of St. Petersburg – the 154-foot cutter Charles Sexton of Key West, and three commercial tugboats, according to the Coast Guard.

Bad weather hampered search efforts Friday and Saturday. Sunday was the first day that Coast Guard officials could effectively search the area, Fedor said, and conditions Monday were good as well.

Asked why the ship made its trip, Fedor said mariners are warned about weather conditions. When the ship left, Joaquin had not yet been upgraded to a hurricane. The decision to leave would have been Davidson’s.

SUPPORT FROM MAINE DELEGATION

Maine Maritime Academy has arranged open counseling hours for students over the past few days, and the school’s director of counseling, Paul Ferreira, held open office hours Monday in Curtis Hall. The college will arrange additional counseling hours as needed, according to Brennan’s statement.

Members of Maine’s congressional delegation released statements offering thoughts and prayers.

“While it’s devastating to learn El Faro has sunk, we must continue to hold onto hope and pray that survivors will be located and reunited with their loved ones,” said U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin. “In English, El Faro means ‘The Lighthouse’ and it is my hope that our lighthouses will help guide our Mainers, and the crew, home.”

Added U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree: “Almost everyone in Maine knows someone who works on the water and knows the risks that involves. Our thoughts are with the brave men and women who go to sea and the Coast Guard and military personnel who have risked their own lives to conduct the search.”

U.S. Sen. Angus King said his heart goes out to the families.

“Like everyone in Maine, I continue to hold out hope that the crew members may be safely brought home,” he said.

U.S. Sen Susan Collins said in a statement that she had been briefed about the search by the leader of the Coast Guard and that those involved were doing everything humanely possible to find survivors.

“My heart goes out to the family members, some of whom I know well, and also to the Maine Maritime Academy community, as they await news about their loved ones,” Collins said.

 Staff Writers Ray Routhier and Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.