JACKSONVILLE, Fla., Oct 4 (Reuters) - 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 more than three days ago, 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 an emotional meeting was held late on Sunday afternoon with the Coast Guard and Tote Maritime executives.
"This is my baby, this is my little girl," sobbed Mary Shevory Wright, an elderly woman waiting for word about her daughter, Mariette Wright, 51, a deckhand who had been at sea since the age of 18.
Fearing the worst Shevory Wright said she was reluctant to enter the union hall. "They are just going to make me cry."
Another woman sat by the curb outside the union hall sobbing as family members hugged each other and held hands nearby.
Barry Young, the uncle of another crew member, said the families still held out hope and the Coast Guard and Tote Maritime had assured them the search would continue on Monday. "This is one that will require a miracle," he conceded.
The families said they were told by the company the ship had two life boats each with a capacity for 43 people.
Late on Sunday the Coast Guard tweeted that the debris field covered 225 square miles, and included styrofoam, wood, cargo and other items.
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."
After meeting the crew's relatives Tote Maritime officials told reporters in Jacksonville late on Sunday that they were still uncertain if the debris field belonged to the El Faro.
A 735-foot (224-meter) container ship with 28 U.S. citizens and five Polish nationals aboard, the El Faro left Jacksonville on Tuesday headed to San Juan, Puerto Rico, when it reported losing propulsion, listing and taking on water after sailing into the path of Joaquin in the Bahamas, the company said.
Philip Green, president and CEO of Tote Services, part of the New Jersey-based Tote shipping company and which also includes Tote Maritime, said the captain of the El Faro had been watching the storm closely and had calculated he had enough room to steer to its west.
When the ship's engine broke down, "that left him in the path (of Joaquin)," Greene said.
The Coast Guard said so far only one debris item, a life ring, had been confirmed as belonging to the ship, which sent a distress call on Thursday morning in the Bahamas but has not been heard from since.
Weather conditions in the search area had greatly improved on Sunday, the Coast Guard said. Four C-130 search-and-rescue planes from the Coast Guard and U.S. Air Force went out at dawn, while three Coast Guard cutters were also sent to the area.
Relatives of the crew have spoken highly of the ship's experienced captain, though some questioned the decision to sail into such a powerful storm.
"The ship should never have left," Rochelle Hamm, wife of one crew member, Frank Hamm, a father of five, told NBC News. After it departed it should have changed course before Joaquin became a hurricane, she added.
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.
"The ship was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time,"
Mike Hanson, a spokesman for Tote Maritime, said in an interview. Joaquin was just a tropical storm when El Faro set out from Jacksonville but later intensified rapidly into a major hurricane, he added.
The National Hurricane Center warned late on Tuesday that Joaquin would become a hurricane in the central Bahamas within 12 hours. (Reporting by Susan Cooper Eastman in Jacksonville and David Adams in Miami; Writing by David Adams; Editing by Diane Craft and Muralikumar Anantharaman)