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Weather delays divers from searching for shipwreck survivors

A Coast Guard Station Grand Isle 45-foot Respone Boat-Medium boatcrew heads toward a capsized 175-foot commercial lift boat Tuesday, April 13, 2021, searching for people in the water 8 miles south of Grand Isle, Louisiana. The Coast Guard and multiple other boats rescued six people onboard a commercial lift boat that capsized off the coast of Louisiana on Tuesday night and were searching for more, the agency said.(U.S. Coast Guard Coast Guard Cutter Glenn Harris via AP)

PORT FOURCHON, La. (AP) — Families anxiously awaited news of the 12 people missing from a capsized oil industry vessel Thursday while stormy weather delayed divers from reaching the ship to search for survivors.

Rescuers don’t know whether any of the missing might be caught inside the lift boat that flipped over Tuesday in hurricane-force winds and high seas about 8 miles (13 kilometers) off the coast of Louisiana, Coast Guard spokesmen said.

“There is the potential they are still there, but we don’t know,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Lally said early Thursday. “We’re still searching for 12 people because there are 12 still missing.”

The Coast Guard said divers were on the scene Thursday afternoon but could not confirm whether they’d begun diving.

Marion Cuyler, who is engaged to crane operator Chaz Morales, spoke to reporters Thursday outside the small fire station in Port Fourchon where a handful of family members have gathered since the accident to await news.

After briefings by executives with boat owner Seacor and the Coast Guard, she said they were told that divers entered the water Thursday morning, paused because of rough weather and were returning later. She said she believes all 12 missing people are on the vessel.

“I heard from someone that was rescued that they are in the boat — which is why we needed those divers in the water, as quickly as possible,” she said.

Cuyler wavered between optimism and fear as she spoke but held out hope that Morales was in a part of the ship where there was air after the accident and would be rescued alive.

“Hopefully, they are all in one room, and they can just rescue them all in one day,” she said.

She also said she and other family members are frustrated and want answers about why the boat went out in the first place.

“I asked, ‘Who gave the orders’ and of course — silence,” she said. Cuyler said she’d told her husband-to-be that he shouldn’t be going out in such weather. “And he knew they shouldn’t have been going out.”

Coast Guard members in a boat made their way to within a few yards of the capsized vessel and tried throwing a hammer at the hull in an attempt to make contact with potential survivors, the Coast Guard said in an update late Thursday.

Six people from the Seacor Power were rescued alive and one person’s body was recovered from the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday as searchers scanned an area roughly the size of Hawaii, the Coast Guard said.

The Lafourche Parish Coroner’s Office identified the dead man as David Ledet, 63, of Thibodaux — a town in southeastern Louisiana where many people work in the oil industry.

“Capt. Dave was awesome,” Joshua Segura, a mate and crane operator, said on Facebook. He said he had worked with Ledet before moving to another offshore company, describing him as one of the nicest and most humble people he’s met.

“Captain David has been on that boat over 15 years and is one of the most experienced captains I’ve ever worked with,” he wrote.

Part of the overturned ship’s hull and one of its legs were still visible, leaving most of the bulky vessel underwater, in an area 50 to 55 feet (15 to 17 meters) deep, according to the Coast Guard. Also called a jackup rig, it has three long legs designed to reach the sea floor and lift the boat out of water as an offshore platform.

Authorities used all-terrain vehicles to search the shoreline near Port Fourchon, a major base for companies that service the vast U.S. oil and gas industry in the Gulf, but paused for impending storms that caused the National Weather Service to issue a flash flood warning for the area.

“There are some local guys that are on that vessel,” Lafourche Parish President Archie P. Chaisson III said. “It’s a very tight community in that industry. Those crews are very tight. This crew had apparently been around for a while working together.”

The vulnerabilities of lift boats in storms have been known for years, and federal authorities have investigated multiple deaths on them.

In September 2011, large waves struck the hull of the Trinity II in the Gulf of Mexico, breaking one of its giant legs, and the stern collapsed into the water, the National Transportation Safety Board wrote in its report. Four of the 10 people on board perished.

In July 1989, the lift boat AVCO V sank off the coast of Leeville, Louisiana, in storms associated with Hurricane Chantal. Waves shifted equipment on the deck, prompting the vessel to capsize and sink, the NTSB found. Ten of the 14 people on board died.

The National Weather Service in New Orleans issued a special marine warning before 4 p.m. Tuesday that predicted steep waves and winds greater than 50 knots (58 mph).

Coast Guard Capt. Will Watson said winds were 80 to 90 mph (130 to 145 kph) and waves rose 7 to 9 feet high (2.1 to 2.7 meters) when the Seacor Power overturned.

“That’s challenging under any circumstance,” Watson said Wednesday. “We don’t know the degree to which that contributed to what happened, but we do know those are challenging conditions to be out in the maritime environment.”