Search-and-rescue teams on Sunday located debris appearing to belong to the cargo ship El Faro, which went missing in the eye of Hurricane Joaquin with 33 mostly American crew members aboard, the U.S. Coast Guard and the ship's owner said.
There was no sighting of the El Faro or any lifeboats, Tim Nolan, president of ship's owner Tote Maritime Puerto Rico, said in a statement.
With no word on the fate of the crew, relatives gathered at a seafarers' union hall in Jacksonville, Florida where they were briefed by the Coast Guard and the ship owners.
"That's my son out there," one overwhelmed woman said outside the hall as she walked to a nearby hotel.
Another woman sat by the curb outside the union hall sobbing as family members hugged each other nearby.
Life jackets, containers and an oil sheen were spotted by Coast Guard aircrews flying over the Bahamas on the third day of their search for the container ship.
Tote Maritime President Nolan also said two vessels the company sent to the scene had found a container "which appears to be from the El Faro."
The Coast Guard could not confirm that the objects belonged to the ship, which sent a distress call on Thursday morning in the Bahamas but has not been heard from since.
"The debris is scattered about over several miles," said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss with the Miami station. "It's going to take some time to verify. The items would appear to be consistent with the missing ship."
El Faro, a 735-foot (224-metre) container ship with 28 U.S. citizens and five Polish nationals aboard, was headed to San Juan, Puerto Rico from Jacksonville, Florida when it reported that it was losing propulsion , listing and taking on water, the Coast Guard said.
Joaquin battered the central Bahamas archipelago for more than two days with 130 mile-per-hour (210 km-per-hour) winds, a potentially catastrophic Category 4 hurricane on a scale of 1 to 5.
Doss said weather conditions in the search area had greatly improved on Sunday, which would enable Coast Guard ships or a helicopter to retrieve the debris for verification.
"There is unrestricted visibility and ideal search conditions right now," he said.
The Coast Guard and the U.S. Air Force sent out four C-130 search-and-rescue planes at dawn on Sunday, and three Coast Guard cutters were headed to the area.
SURPRISED BY COMMUNICATIONS LOSS
On Saturday, pilots working in high winds and seas found three life rings in waters to the northeast of Crooked Island in the Bahamas, about 75 miles (120 km) from the ship's last known position. One was confirmed to be from the El Faro.
Conditions in the area on Friday and Saturday hampered search efforts, with 20- to 40 foot (6- to 12-metre)seas and winds in excess of 115 mph (185 kph), the Coast Guard said.
It is not known whether the El Faro was able to recover propulsion at some point.
There were no further communications after a distress call received at about 7:30 a.m. (1130 GMT) on Thursday, the Coast Guard said. The search-and-rescue efforts have covered more than 30,000 square miles (78,000 square km) since then.
"We are very surprised that we lost all communication with the ship," Mike Hanson, a spokesman for Tote Maritime Puerto Rico, said in an interview.
The ship was equipped with an onboard transponder as well as a satellite phone and GPS devices on the containers, he said.
(Additional reporting by Neil Hartnell in Nassau and Susan Cooper EAstman in Jacksonville, Florida; Editing by Gareth Jones, Mary Milliken and Jonathan Oatis)