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Freighter sinks in gulf; crew alive, well

A freighter sank in the Gulf of Mexico late Friday, and searchers from the U.S. Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard finally found the last crew members floating in the water, alive, Saturday afternoon.

The Coast Guard station in St. Petersburg picked up a distress call from the Holstein about 11:30 p.m., Petty Officer Jesse Orr said. The 225-foot freighter from Mexico was taking on water, and the 15 crew members were preparing to abandon ship.

Just before midnight, the ship slipped under the waves about 90 miles west of Tarpon Springs.

The storm that spawned deadly tornadoes just 10 hours later may have contributed to the plight of the Holstein, Coast Guard officials said. But they did not directly attribute the disaster to the weather.

After the Holstein sank, a Navy minesweeper, the USS Defender, picked up 10 people on a raft after they had shot off flares. Then the Navy crew found another survivor, treading water in seas up to 15 feet.

But the other four crew members still were missing. Over the next 15 hours, sailors and fliers searched a 900-square-mile area in the middle of a squall, trying to find the men.

Finally, they found the four missing crewmen floating in the water together, wearing life jackets and surrounded by thousands of bags of flour from the freighter.

"They stayed in a group, and kept their spirits up," Orr said.

The crew, brought in to the Clearwater Coast Guard station about 3 p.m., did not need medical treatment, Orr said.

Officials were still investigating the sinking of the Holstein Saturday night, he said.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.