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Groton native among crew members killed in ship sunk by Hurricane Joaquin

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GROTON--One of the missing crew members abroad the El Faro cargo ship has been identified as Mitchell Kuflik, a 2007 graduate from Fitch High School in Groton, according to the superintendent of Groton schools.

Last week, 33 crew members of the El Faro died when the ship got in the path of Hurricane Joaquin near the Bahamas, after departing from Florida.

"We know what this young man and others endured, and we're just heartbroken," said Groton Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Graner, a retired U.S. Coast Guard captain.

Credit: Fitch High School yearbook

Credit: Fitch High School yearbook

Graner says Kuflik was very invested in science while he was a student, and was even in the school's science club.

The 26-year-old dreamed of one day owning a tugboat company. Before joining the crew of the El Faro, Kuflik was a 2011 graduate of the Maine Maritime Academy, and then joined the United States Merchant Marines.

"It’s very difficult to get in, but he was a determined student who realized his dreams and became a talented mariner," said Graner of Kuflik going to the Maine Maritime Academy.

"He was definitely a prankster, and very energetic guy," said Brian Chidle, a physics teacher at Fitch Senior High School.

Kuflik's took AP physics his senior year at Fitch, taught by Chidle, who still fondly remembers Kuflik's wisecracks and practical jokes during his class.

"He would change the caps on the white board dry eraser markers, I would pick up the blue pen and think it was red," said Chidley.  "He was always thinking of ways to make things fun."

Support for the fallen El Faro crew member poured out all over social media.

On Kuflik's mother's Facebook page, one person posted, "A wonderful man you raised."

Another wrote, "A man worth emulating."

The category 4 hurricane was the strongest of the 2015 Atlantic hurricane season so far, and was just 2 mph shy of becoming a category 5.

Although the Coast Guard called off its search on Wednesday at sundown after almost a week, the U.S. Navy, on behalf of a request from the National Transportation Safety Board, announced it will deploy a vessel to look for more debris and bodies.

Crews have narrowed the search area down to two debris fields -- one about 345 square miles near the El Faro's last-known location, which was 36 miles to the northeast of Crooked Island in the Bahamas, and one 81 square miles wide located 69 miles north of that position.

One body was found in the water on Sunday, but that is the only one that has been located so far.

The owners of El Faro insist Capt. Michael Davidson had a "sound plan" to avoid Hurricane Joaquin, and he had real-time weather information when he left the port in Jacksonville, Tote Services President Phil Greene told reporters.

Given the weather system, the captain's "plan was a sound plan that would have enabled him to clearly pass around the storm with a margin of comfort that was adequate in his professional opinion," Greene said.

The captain sent an email to headquarters September 30 saying he was aware of the "weather condition" -- the increasingly powerful Hurricane Joaquin -- and that he was monitoring its track, though conditions where the ship was "looked very favorable."

The captain told his company that El Faro was disabled, but "did not explain in his communication why he had lost propulsion," Greene said. "He indicated that he had had a navigational incident."

The next day, El Faro lost propulsion right in the path of the hurricane.