CUT OFF, La. – The U.S. Coast Guard said it will suspend the search for crew members who disappeared when a lift boat capsized off Louisiana last week at sunset Monday, and authorities do not expect to find more survivors from the vessel.
The grim news from Capt. Will Watson, commander of the Coast Guard Sector New Orleans, comes after days of searching for the missing workers from the oil industry lift boat Seacor Power, which capsized Tuesday during a fierce storm in the Gulf of Mexico about eight miles (13 kilometers) south of Port Fourchon. Six of the 19 workers on the boat were rescued within hours of the wreck; five more bodies were found in the water or on board the vessel in the days since then. Eight remain missing.
Watson said officials had just come from briefing the families on the news.
“There was a lot of hugging and a lot of crying. There was a lot of sadness and grief," he said.
The president of the Seacor Marine, which owns the boat, said during the news conference that divers from a company they have contracted with will continue to search the entire vessel. John Gellert said they are about halfway through the vessel as of midday Monday. Gellert also said that divers from a company Seacor contracts with were on the scene four hours after the ship capsized.
“We are steadfast in our efforts to return those who remain missing," Gellert said. But he added that efforts will depend on the weather, not just on the surface but below the surface. "The currents are currently very strong. That will determine diving windows. When we are able to dive we will dive continuously.”
Families who have been waiting for days for any news of their loved ones were already preparing for the worst earlier Monday. Arlana Saddler, the youngest sister of missing worker Gregory Walcott, told the AP earlier that she was trying to be realistic about her brother's chances of survival.
“I’m being real. This is the seventh day, and even if they made it through the boat turning over and all that, there’s no food, no water. You’re talking seven days," she said.
Many families have been questioning why the ship was out in such stormy seas. Gellert said while there were warnings of bad weather, what the boat actually encountered when it was offshore was significantly worse than expected.
“There were warnings. There were not warnings on the magnitude of which we encountered," he said. “The weather they were forecasted to encounter was well within the limits of the vessel. The weather that they encountered was well beyond the forecast, as far as we know, at this time."
Gellert said the decision on whether to go or not was entirely up to the captain, but he emphasized that the captain had the company's full support. The captain, David Ledet, 63, was among the dead.
“He was one of our best captains. He was very prudent and conservative,” he said.
The coroner's office has identified the other four people whose bodies have been recovered: Anthony Hartford, 53, of New Orleans; James Wallingsford, 55, of Gilbert, Louisiana; Ernest Williams, 69, of Arnaudville; and Lawrence J. Warren, 36, of Terrytown, Louisiana.
The Seacor Power is a lift boat. Such vessels have three legs that can be lowered to the sea floor to raise the ship off the water to serve as a temporary offshore platform. The boats are often used in the offshore oil industry. When they are traveling the legs stick straight up in the air.
Gellert said it appeared the legs were full retracted — meaning all the way up and a position he described as its “most vulnerable” — at the beginning of the voyage but there are indications that the captain was trying to lower the legs when the ship capsized.
“As far as we can make out there was about five feet of leg that was retracted from the hull, which leads us to believe the captain was starting, trying to jack down,” said Gellert. He said it takes about a minute to move the legs down five feet. The ship capsized in about 50 to 55 feet of water.
Late Sunday, officials told family members that they had recovered another body — the fifth since the operation began. The coroner on Monday identified the body as that of Lawrence J. Warren, 36, of Terrytown, Louisiana. Frank Boeckl was Warren’s uncle. He choked up while lovingly talking about his nephew “Larry,” but said he was glad that he had been found and that the family's ordeal was over.
“We just feel so blessed that we are able to take him home, and we hope for the rest of the families that they are able to take their loved ones home, too,” he said. “We’re going to be able to take him home, and that’s it. I just really pray for all the other families.”
Andrew Ehlers, marine accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board that is investigating, estimated that it could be as long as two years before an official determination is made of what happened. He said they will be looking at three main areas: people involved in the case both on the ship and on land, the ship and equipment, and the weather.
Investigators are asking for anyone with information about the ship, people who might have served on it before and have photos or videos of it, or people who were out on the water that day to reach out.
Associated Press reporters Rebecca Santana and Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans and Jeff Martin in Marietta, Georgia contributed to this report.