NORTHEAST OF SAN SALVADOR ISLAND, Bahamas, Over The Atlantic Ocean (CNN) — As the sun rose, the sweet smell of cinnamon buns wafted into the cockpit.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Anders Forsberg, who ran communications on the HC-130, had just plucked them from the convection oven in the galley. A 63-knot tailwind at their back, most of the seven-person crew, which had just departed U.S. Coast Guard Station Clearwater in South Florida, eagerly reached for a sticky treat.
The Coast Guard team was slated to spend at least the next nine hours in the air searching for any sign or survivor of the El Faro container ship that disappeared Thursday during Hurricane Joaquin. They knew it would be important to keep their energy up for the grueling task.
Once they reached their starting point, off the coast of the far-flung Bahamian island of San Salvador, they promptly dropped to an altitude of 500 feet — a height from which the pilots and crew could see objects in the water with the naked eye.
Sure, there’s plenty of technology aboard the massive cargo plane — including radar and a sophisticated underbelly camera the crew asked CNN not to film because it’s used in the Coast Guard’s drug interdiction efforts — but the most vital equipment on this aircraft may have been the seven pairs of eyes.
Journalists typically want to be flies on the wall, not engaging with a story so much as observing it, but in a search-and-rescue mission where 33 people could be clinging to life after days adrift in the Joaquin-whipped Atlantic Ocean, everyone needed to chip in.
“Just because it’s your first time doesn’t mean you can’t help,” Lt. Janelle Setta, the HC-130’s copilot, told one of the two CNN journalists on board.
Lt. Heather Majeska, the other copilot, added that it would be easier to gauge the water if you mentally cut the horizon in half. The grid that the HC-130 crew was searching required the pilots to fly a straight 44-mile course, make a u-turn onto a parallel track and fly 44 miles the other way, make another u-turn and repeat the process over and over again. The “lanes” of the grid were only about two miles apart, so there was no need to strain your eyes peering into the distance.
If anyone spotted people in the water, the pilots would then fly over them and drop a survival kit with food and water along with a lifeboat, if they needed it, while contacting the nearest Coast Guard cutter, helicopter or commercial ship to pick them up, Setta explained.
‘Let’s find ’em!’
The plane rumbled down to searching altitude, appearing much lower than 50 stories above the water. Petty Officers 3rd Class Tyler Mize and Mark Strock strapped themselves in with thick nylon webbing, and after a series of safety checks, stood by as the cargo door — big enough to drive a Humvee through — opened.
They tossed a buoy out of the back of the plane as it cruised at roughly 150 knots (173 mph). The buoy contained a beacon that allows the Coast Guard to read currents and ocean conditions (though two crew members confided that predicting ocean currents after a Category 4 hurricane is an inexact science at best).
Still, Majeska and the crew were hopeful.
“Let’s find ’em!” she said as she and Setta began flying the plane along the grid.
Quickly, crew members began commenting on the abundance of debris located near oil sheen that could be seen for miles.
“I’m picking up so many targets,” Petty Officer 3rd Class Chris LaBelle, the plane’s navigator, said through the headphones. “It’s crazy how much debris there is.”
“Yeah, it is. I’ve never seen this much debris before,” another crew member replied, commenting that it appears a ship exploded rather than sunk.
There were Styrofoam chunks, a 2X4, what appeared to be a red scarf, a ladder and large pieces of corrugated siding that could be from shipping containers. But the bulk of the debris resembled bloated chunks of white bread that had been in a duck pond for too long.
Anything orange or yellow, even it was just the sun playing tricks, excited the crew. The team doubled back to “orbit,” or fly over, a white-and-orange tube floating on the water. It turned out to be nothing.
A half hour later, a white-and-yellow object drew the team’s attention. It was tough to see, even on the second pass. Was it … splashing?
Mize popped wintergreen Life Savers, perhaps not realizing the coincidence, as he zoomed the underbelly camera in on the item, which resembled a large water heater. It couldn’t be determined what was causing the splashing, so the team sent coordinates to a nearby Coast Guard cutter to have a closer look.
“It’s usually not this busy,” Setta said. “It’s usually a lot of droning along looking at nothing.”
Debris a good sign
The wealth of debris is good news, as the Coast Guard team sees it. If the debris is from the El Faro, it means that its crew had plenty to cling to or float on when they fell overboard.
“Honestly, I think there’s a good chance people could be out there with all this debris,” Petty Officer 1st Class Jim Fielder, the plane’s engineer, said.
The HC-130 crew wouldn’t hear the news until they landed, but while they were airborne, Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor held a news conference in which he told reporters that the search for the El Faro was off.
The focus now was solely on survivors, which you could tell the team suspected. After all, it’s tough for a 790-foot cargo ship to disappear without sinking.
Search teams found one survival suit containing remains, Fedor said at his news conference, but they were unidentifiable, so it’s not clear if they belonged to one of the 28 Americans or five Polish nationals on board the El Faro.
The suits, which the Coast Guard crew calls “Gumby suits,” are another factor bolstering the team’s hopes. A cargo ship like the El Faro would’ve been equipped with Gumby suits and lifeboats. The El Faro’s crew would’ve had the time and training to use both, given that, before it vanished, it called in a distress signal to say the ship had lost propulsion and was taking water.
A capsized orange-bottomed boat buoyed hopes again, but the crew grew skeptical upon realizing it had a V-shaped hull and was likely too large to be a lifeboat.
Asked one of the crew: Did searchers ever recover the boat in which two Florida 14-year-olds went missing? Most of the HC-130 crew members took part in that search over the summer as well.
Indeed, it was recovered, came the answer. The team decided to move on after Mize and the camera determined no one was clinging to the capsized boat.
Shortly afterward, the plane flew over another corrugated panel. Then what appeared to be a life vest. Another false call. Then a second boat — this time an old-school tri-hull, probably from the 1970s or 1980s. It, too, was determined not to be flotsam from the El Faro.
1,056 square miles
There was a lot of double- and triple-checking on this search mission because, the crew explained, there was so much debris and they wanted to be absolutely certain it was unimportant before they move on. Can you imagine, Setta asked, if you were down there and saw the HC-130 fly over, but the crew didn’t see you?
The debris seemed to thin out over the last hour of the search, though a few pieces caught the team’s eye: a large box, “something purple,” a piece of wood paneling and a bed liner for a pickup truck. That last piece was initially thought promising, as the El Faro’s cargo included automobiles.
After almost eight hours in the air completing the 1,056-square-mile grid (a total flight of 700 miles, the distance from Minneapolis to Denver), it was time to head back to Clearwater, about two hours away. The plane had taken off with 64,000 pounds of fuel and, for safety reasons, needed to return with 15,000 pounds.
The crewmembers were familiar and friendly with each other throughout the flight, as anyone who regularly spends hours with each other in tight quarters might be. But their jocularity grew as the HC-130 soared back into the clouds for the journey home.
No, they didn’t find any survivors, but they did important work clearing a huge swath of ocean so the Coast Guard could focus its resources on new, unsearched grids. That’s especially important considering Joaquin’s ferocity and the massive debris field searchers believe the El Faro left behind, Setta explained.
“If (the survivors) were on a life raft in 140-mph winds,” she said, “they could get blown pretty far.”