Although the investigation into the sinking of the El Faro has just begun, former crew members are adding to speculation that the ship’s age and condition put the vessel at risk as it steamed into Hurricane Joaquin near the Bahamas last week.

Three former crew members of the 41-year-old cargo ship said it had structural problems, including widespread rust and some leaks, and may not have been equipped to handle a major storm, according to a report by CNN.

The ship is believed to have sunk last Thursday after it lost power and was left adrift in the teeth of the hurricane. All 33 crew members, including five with ties to Maine, are presumed dead. It’s the biggest shipping tragedy involving a U.S. registered vessel in more than three decades.

TOTE Maritime, the company that owns the El Faro, has disputed claims that the ship was not seaworthy, saying it was well-maintained and fully inspected. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the ship was last inspected in March and no deficiencies were found.

INSPECTIONS CALLED STRINGENT

Several experts cast doubt on the former crew members’ contention, saying ship inspections are stringent and that it’s unlikely the El Faro would have passed if it had structural deficiencies.

Joseph Murphy, a professor at Massachusetts Maritime Academy and a captain with four decades of experience, understands the desire of people to seek answers or even assign blame, but he doesn’t think it’s helpful.

“We just don’t know what information was available to the captain and crew,” he said this week.

Laurence Wade, a merchant captain who retired in 2011 after 50 years at sea, including 15 as captain of the Maine Maritime Academy’s training ship, discounted reports that the 790-foot El Faro was in poor condition.

He said that ships are inspected yearly by the Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping and also are subject to more rigorous ABS inspections every five years or when a ship goes to a shipyard for repairs. Ships also are subject to random inspections by the Coast Guard, he said, adding that it wouldn’t surprise him if the El Faro was given unscheduled checks given its age.

He said the inspectors crawl all over a ship, checking the thickness of the hull, looking for signs of rust and going over the ship’s structure. They also look at life-safety systems, he said, including the lifeboats and the electronic systems designed to send out signals if the ship sinks or capsizes.

Typically, two teams of two to three Coast Guard officials will spend a day or two on the ship for the annual inspections, Wade said.

“It’s a constant thing over the lifetime of a ship,” he said.

Still, the reports from ex-crew members of the ship, which was built in 1974 and was soon to be replaced on its Caribbean route by a new vessel, could well be part of the National Transportation Safety Board probe that is likely to take a year to complete.

Now that the NTSB investigation is underway, TOTE signed an agreement that it would not talk about any specifics related to the El Faro or its sinking.

The Coast Guard and ABS also have been instructed to no longer discuss the tragedy.

TOTE did announce Friday that it has set up a relief fund for the families of the 33 crew members, a move it says was in response to “hundreds of employees, mariners, customers and individuals from around the country” who have asked where they can donate money. The fund will be managed by the Seaman’s Church Institute, the largest mariners’ service agency in North America.

TOTE didn’t respond to calls or emails Friday.

The crew included five Maine Maritime Academy graduates: Michael Davidson, 53, of Windham, the ship’s captain; Danielle Randolph, 34, of Rockland; Michael Holland, 25, of Wilton, and Dylan Meklin, 23, of Rockland, who graduated in May, and Mitchell Kuflik, 26, of Brooklyn, New York.

As the NTSB investigation develops, a critical question will be whether or not Navy searchers find the El Faro’s data recorder before its battery runs out. That device stores information about the ship’s speed, position and communication. Once a recorder comes into contact with water, it automatically stores 12 hours of audio from the ship’s bridge and emits emergency pings for up to 30 days.

Searchers will drag listening devices in the area where the ship is believed to have sunk in 15,000 feet of water – northeast of Crooked Island in The Bahamas – to listen for those pings.

‘IT WAS A RUST BUCKET’

Former El Faro crew members, though, have raised questions about whether the ship should even have been in that position.

Attempts to reach them on Friday were unsuccessful, but Chris Cash, who last sailed on the El Faro in January, told CNN that the ship should have been scrapped.

“(It) needed a death certificate. It was a rust bucket,” he said. “You don’t take a ship like that … that ship wasn’t supposed to be on the water.”

Cash said he thought the company maintained the ship just enough to squeeze a few more trips out of it before replacement.

Kurt Bruer, who spent six months on the cargo ship as a quartermaster, told CNN that leaks were common and the vessel’s drainage system “did not work well.”

CNN reported that Bruer had been terminated by the El Faro’s captain for reasons he would not discuss.

Attempts to contact family members of Mainers aboard the El Faro when it sank were unsuccessful Friday night.

NTSB investigators have talked to crew members of the El Faro’s sister ship, the El Yunque, and inspected the vessel Friday in Jacksonville.

“El Yunque is nearly identical to El Faro. We will thoroughly document the vessel, its systems and its equipment, and that includes documenting the exact location of the VDR (voyage data recorder) on these vessels,” NTSB Vice Chair Bella Dinh-Zarr said at a news conference on Thursday.

Both the El Faro and the El Yunque, which was built in 1976, were not conventional container ships but “roll-on/roll-off” cargo vessels designed to carry trucks and other vehicles. Roll-on/roll-off ships have large external doors that can be close to the waterline and open vehicle decks with few internal compartments. During extreme weather, such as the 30- to 40-foot waves the El Faro encountered during Hurricane Joaquin, seawater could have poured through any improperly secured or damaged loading door.

Such ships require large open spaces below deck for carrying vehicles, and when water gets inside the hangar-like spaces it can slosh around the entire deck, making the ship unstable. This sloshing is known as the “free surface effect,” and a surprisingly small amount of water can cause a ship to capsize, Rick Spilman, who has worked as a naval architect for 30 years and writes a blog about ships, said this week.

CAPTAIN CALLED SAFETY OFFICER

TOTE officials have said that Davidson, the El Faro’s captain, had a sound plan before the ship left and they trusted him completely. Many others have said Davidson was an extremely capable sailor, and family members of crew also have defended him.

NTSB investigators said they have interviewed a shore-based safety officer who took a voicemail from Davidson at 7 a.m. on Oct. 1, not long before the El Faro’s final communication. Davidson called back and spoke to the officer, who described the captain as calm.

Maritime experts in Maine and elsewhere have said that cargo ships often sail in bad weather, even in hurricanes. Had the El Faro not lost power and propulsion, the outcome likely would have been different.

“Ships like this make those trips all the time where you have to route around a storm,” said Murphy, the Massachusetts Maritime professor. “I’m sure that’s what they were trying to do when the engine failed.”

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine spoke about the tragedy on the House floor on Capitol Hill this week before calling for a moment of silence.

“In Maine we have a strong connection to those who make their living on the water and we know the risks they take every time they go to sea,” Pingree said. “But in no way does that make a tragedy like this any less painful. It is difficult for me to know what the families of the crew are going through, and have been going through – but they are in my thoughts and the thoughts of everyone in our state.”

Deb Roberts, the mother of crew member Michael Holland of Wilton, wrote on Facebook on Friday that the U.S. Coast Guard did all it could despite protests from some that the search ended too soon.

“Mother Nature is a son of a bitch sometimes,” she said. “However, I will never give up hope for a miracle that Mike is on an island somewhere drinking coconut milk waiting for a ride home.”