El Faro cargo ship

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The Coast Guard said Monday that a U.S. cargo ship carrying 33 people that has been missing since it encountered high winds and heavy seas from Hurricane Joaquin sank, but that planes and ships will continue searching for the missing crew.

Chief Petty Officer Jon-Paul Rios said the Coast Guard and the owner of the 790-foot container ship El Faro concluded that the vessel sank after debris, containers and an oil sheen were found.

"We're definitely still looking for survivors at this time," Rios said. "It's still a very active search and rescue operation."

Three Coast Guard cutters, two C-130 aircraft, helicopters and a U.S. Navy plane were searching across a wide expanse of Atlantic Ocean near Crooked Island. Another Coast Guard spokesman, David Schulein, said searchers found a significant debris field 88 miles off Samana Cay believed to have come from the El Faro.

The vessel's owner said previously that a container that appears to have come from the ship was found, along with a debris field that included what appeared to be pieces of container. Searchers also spotted an oil sheen and found a life ring from the El Faro.

The El Faro departed from Jacksonville, Florida, on Sept. 29, when Joaquin was still a tropical storm. The ship had 28 crew members from the United States and five from Poland, and it was heading to Puerto Rico on a regular cargo supply run when it ran into trouble. It was being battered by winds of more than 130 mph and waves of up to 30 feet (9 meters). Contact was lost early Thursday.

The crew reported that the ship had lost power, had taken on water and was listing 15 degrees but that the situation was "manageable," in their last communication on Thursday morning, according to ship owner TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico. They have not been heard from since.

Family members of the crew said Sunday that they were trying to remain optimistic as they awaited word of any developments at the Seafarer's International Union hall in Jacksonville. Some sobbed and hugged each other.

"This is torture," Mary Shevory, mother of crew member Mariette Wright.

Shevory, who had come to the union hall from her home in Massachusetts, said her 51-year-old daughter was devoted to her job working on the ship.

"I'm just praying to God they find the ship and bring my daughter and everyone on it home," she said.

Laurie Bobillot's daughter, Danielle Randolph, is a second mate on the El Faro. Bobillot said she was trying not to lose hope.

"We've got to stay positive," said Bobillot, of Rockland, Maine. "These kids are trained. Every week they have abandon-ship drills."

The first sign of the ship, an orange life ring, was found Saturday about 120 miles (193 kilometers) northeast of Crooked Island. That was followed by floating debris and the oil sheen Sunday.

The company has defended its decision to authorize voyage. Crew members were "equipped to handle situations such as changing weather," it said in a statement.

Phil Greene, president and CEO of TOTE Services, Inc., said the captain had been observing the weather patterns and discussed the weather as the El Faro passed its sister ship going in the opposite direction.

Greene said the El Faro has been in service for many years and was built to work in the rough seas off Alaska. "She is a sturdy, rugged vessel that was well maintained and that the crew members were proud of," he said.