CASTINE — For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost. For want of a fistful of nails, the 790-foot freighter El Faro sank two years ago in Hurricane Joaquin with the loss of all 33 souls on board.
Who bears the blame for the worst U.S. maritime disaster in more than 30 years?
Based on a summary released last week by the National Transportation Safety Board of the final report of its investigation of the sinking, the better question might be, “Who doesn’t?”
El Faro sailed from Jacksonville, Fla., shortly before 11 p.m. on Sept. 29, 2015, on a regularly scheduled voyage to Puerto Rico carrying cars, trucks and cargo containers. On board were a crew of 28 merchant mariners and a “riding party” of five Polish contractors working on the vessel’s boilers. Five of the crew, including the ship’s captain, Michael Davidson, were graduates of Maine Maritime Academy.
MMA representatives said the school plans to issue a statement in response to the NTSB report, but it was not yet available by press time.
Just 33 hours later, at about 7:40 a.m. on Oct. 1, El Faro foundered and sank. The entire ship’s company was lost and none of their bodies were recovered.
How could that happen in the 21st century?
After an investigation lasting more than two years, the NTSB placed blame for El Faro’s loss squarely on her captain and her owner and operator, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico and TOTE Services Inc., respectively. The board also raised issues with the National Weather Service hurricane forecast and, to a lesser extent, the way the U.S. Coast Guard and private vessel classification societies set standards for ships in international trade and inspect the vessels.
The board found the captain’s decision to sail on Sept. 29 was perfectly reasonable. At sailing time, the NOAA National Hurricane Center forecast called for a tropical storm with top winds of 60 knots (about 70 mph) with a center located well to the north of where El Faro ultimately sank. Based on the Sept. 29 forecast, according to the NTSB, there were several available route options between Jacksonville and Puerto Rico that should have kept El Faro well clear of the storm.
By the time El Faro sank, Joaquin had grown into a hurricane packing winds of 95 knots (about 110 mph) with a center located 104 miles south of the position predicted in the Sept. 29 NHC forecast. The technology the ship relied on for weather information updated storm forecasts less frequently than the NHC broadcast them, so the captain had weather information that was less than current, at least officially.
As Sept. 30 wore on, though, at least two of the ship’s officers who were tracking the hurricane’s development on the internet advised Davidson that Joaquin was growing stronger and moving directly toward El Faro’s course. Despite those warnings, the captain did not order a course change.
In fact, the NTSB said Davidson had left the bridge at 8 p.m. and didn’t return until shortly after 4 a.m., less than four hours before the ship’s last communication was transmitted on Oct. 1, 2015.
Several professional mariners who would discuss the sinking only on the condition of anonymity were critical of the captain’s prolonged absence from the bridge.
“He made a plan and went to bed,” said one experienced captain.
According to the NTSB report, as El Faro sailed into the outer edges of the hurricane, about five hours prior to the sinking, it slowed down and began to list to starboard (to the right facing forward) because of the fierce wind and heavy seas. As the weather worsened, the crew struggled with what the board described as “a cascading series of events,” each of them alone serious enough to threaten the ship.
The sequence described by the NTSB is chilling. As the ship was pounded by the weather, seawater surged through openings on a partially enclosed deck in the ship’s hull, pooled on the starboard side, increasing the ship’s list, and poured through an open hatch into a cargo hold. As the hold filled, cars lashed to the deck broke free and, investigators say, likely smashed a pipe in the ship’s firefighting system. That would have let thousands of gallons of seawater per minute pour into the ship faster than could be removed by bilge pumps and increased its list even further.
About 90 minutes before the ship sank, El Faro lost propulsion and any ability to maneuver. The likely cause, according to the NTSB, was insufficient lubricating oil for the engine to operate at such a steep angle of heel — a likelihood the ship’s engineers were probably not aware of because TOTE failed to train its engineers on the risk.
As El Faro was overwhelmed, the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship. According to the NTSB, he delayed that order until it was too late and “the crew’s chances of survival were significantly reduced” because the ship carried only life rafts and open, uncovered lifeboats that complied with Coast Guard and shipping society safety requirements but were unusable in hurricane conditions.
In its final report, the NTSB was highly critical of TOTE. The board called the company’s safety management system “inadequate” because it didn’t train its officers and crew with heavy weather preparation and response sufficiently “to ensure safe passage” at sea. The report also cited the company for several other failings including a “lack of oversight in critical aspects of safety management.”
The report also criticized the Coast Guard’s alternative safety inspection program and the way it is administered by a private ship classification society which, in theory, conducts inspections on the Coast Guard’s behalf.
Still, the NTSB said Captain Davidson bore primary responsibility for El Faro’s sinking.
“We may never understand why the captain failed to heed his crew’s concerns about sailing into the path of a hurricane, or why he refused to chart a safer course away from such dangerous weather,” NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said in announcing the board’s findings last week. “But we know all too well the devastating consequences of those decisions.”
With Hurricane Joaquin still raging, the Coast Guard mounted a huge aerial search and rescue mission. Despite those efforts, only a single body was spotted in the water. and none of the crew were found or saved.
After a nearly six-month search, El Faro’s voyage data recorder was located in 15,000 feet of water, about 41 miles northeast of Acklins and Crooked Islands, Bahamas.