By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) - Wreckage believed to be of the cargo ship El Faro, which was lost off the Bahamas along with its 33 crew during Hurricane Joaquin, was discovered on Saturday, U.S. officials said.
El Faro disappeared on Oct. 1 en route from Jacksonville, Florida, to Puerto Rico in the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel since 1983, after the captain reported a "hull breach" and said a hatch had blown open.
A search team aboard the U.S. Naval Ship Apache using sonar equipment discovered the wreckage on Saturday in the area of El Faro's last known position at a depth of 15,000 feet (4,572 meters), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said in a statement.
NTSB said officials planned to use a remotely operated submersible as early as Sunday to confirm the find. But it said the wreckage was consistent with a 790-foot (241-meter) cargo ship, and appeared to be intact in an upright position.
A video camera mounted on the submersible will be used to document the wreckage and debris field and locate the ship's voyage data recorder, similar to the black box on airplanes, the statement said.
The discovery followed an earlier, failed attempt by the Apache to detect pings from El Faro's voyage data recorder by using equipment called a towed pinger locator.
Most of El Faro's crew were American.
NTSB officials said on Oct. 20 that the captain, aside from saying in a recorded satellite phone call that the El Faro was taking on water in one of the holds, had reported it had lost its main propulsion unit and engineers could not restart it.
The cargo ship's owner, New Jersey-based Tote Inc, has stated that loss of propulsion likely spelled the ship's doom.
It was not yet clear if the hull breach was directly related to the loss of propulsion.
Tote Services filed for protection in federal court in Florida on Friday, citing U.S. maritime law and saying the ship was "seaworthy and properly manned" and that the company bears no responsibility for its loss.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by James Dalgleish and Chris Michaud)