Expert says sinking of El Faro was a perfect storm of misfortune

ELLSWORTH — A veteran tanker captain who has had his own harrowing experiences at sea says the sinking of the El Faro last year in the Bahamas was likely due to a convergence of unfortunate factors.

Skip Strong, co-owner of Penobscot Bay and River Pilots in Searsport, also said the captain’s seemingly unruffled behavior as his demeanor emerges in the newly released, 500-page transcript of the vessel’s black box is not unusual.

“Your job is to be the calm voice,” Strong said in interview with The American. “Your job is not to lose your cool. If you get flustered, you’re in the wrong job.”

The El Faro was bound from Jacksonville, Fla., to Puerto Rico when it sank Oct. 1, 2015, about 39 nautical miles northeast of Crooked Island in the Bahamas.

The entire crew of 33 aboard the 790-foot vessel died, among them five Maine Maritime Academy graduates.

The MMA graduates were Captain Michael Davidson of Windham; Dylan Melkin and Danielle Randolph, both of Rockland; Michael Holland of Wilton and Mitchell Kuflik of Groton, Conn.

The Navy and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recovered the voyage data recorder on Aug. 8 of this year at a depth of 15,000 feet.

On Dec. 13, the NTSB released a transcript — the longest the NTSB has ever transcribed — that represented 10 of 26 hours of recordings. The NTSB said it took four months to decipher and record all the words that were recorded.

The NTSB at the same time released other facts related to weather, engineering and survival factors.

“Providing the public docket affords the public the opportunity to see what information has been gathered about the accident,” the NTSB said in a statement. “Any analysis, findings, recommendations or probable cause determinations related to the accident will be issued by the NTSB at a later date.”

The owner of the El Faro is Tote Services Inc.

The El Faro left Jacksonville for Puerto Rico on Sept. 29, 2015. By the following day, a tropical storm had developed into Hurricane Joaquin.

“With the weather they had at the time of his departure, the captain’s decision was good,” said Strong, who lives in Southwest Harbor. “When they left it was a tropical storm and it became a hurricane really quickly.”

Strong has appeared before the NTSB as an expert witness in the past. He also is an MMA graduate.

With regard to the El Faro, he suspects many things went wrong in fatal succession.

“Storms are unpredictable,” Strong said. “Storms are stationary a lot of the time. This one started moving to the southwest, which is not typical. Most would move west, northwest or northeast.”

He said it also appears the captain was receiving outdated and conflicting weather forecasts — four to six hours old — for a rapidly developing, erratic storm.

“Then they got water in the ship somehow and got a 15-degree induced list,” Strong said. “That’s a big problem.”

Unlike a list, or leaning, brought on by sea swells, an induced list is caused by something gone awry aboard the vessel, in this case either from taking on water and/or a shifting of cargo.

The final blow was the loss of propulsion, which Strong believes was caused by a malfunction in the mechanism feeding lubricating oil to the engine.

“Once you have lost the ability to maintain a vessel forward, you are at the mercy of the wind and sea,” he said. “You would be beam to sea, meaning you would be rolling with the swells while the wind causing the swells is perpendicular to the vessel.”

Skip Strong: Ellsworth American Photo by Jacqueline Weaver

Strong, who has captained oil tankers, said the center of balance on a container ship such as the El Faro is much higher than that of a bottom-heavy oil tanker — another significant drawback.

He said it appeared from the transcript that Davidson was trying to keep a safe distance from the hurricane, but Joaquin’s erratic path made the change in course more dangerous.

“They wound up being in the eye of the storm,” Strong said.

Strong was employed by Keystone Shipping Co. for 12 years, working his way up from third mate to captain, and frequently took vessels across the Caribbean.

In 1994, Strong was captain of the 688-foot tanker SS Cherry Valley. An oceangoing tug, J.A. Orgeron, was having engine trouble 40 miles north of Strong’s vessel.

Deciding the Cherry Valley, which was carrying 235,000 barrels of oil, was the only ship in position to help, Strong saved the crew and tug through a complicated series of maneuvers.

But he said the conditions he and his crew dealt with were nothing like what Davidson, the captain of the El Faro, faced.

“For us it was a tropical storm with 50 to 60 knots of wind and 15- to 20-foot seas,” Strong said. “It wasn’t the same danger as running close to a category three hurricane.”

Strong, whose family owns a home on Great Guana Key in the northern Bahamas, said the problem for a vessel when storms are to the east and the Bahamas to the west is “you have extremely limited options about where you can turn and run.”

“That’s unless you plan to do something a whole lot earlier,” before the storm intensifies, he said.

“Predicting storms is part science and part art,” Strong said. “Half the time we don’t have either end of that really well.”

The end of the NTSB transcript records Davidson trying to get a crew member to move.

“I’m not leaving you, let’s go,” Davidson said.

“I’m gone, I’m a goner,” the sailor cried.

“No you’re not,” Davidson shouted. “It’s time to come this way.”

Jacqueline Weaver

Jacqueline Weaver

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Jacqueline's beat covers the eastern Hancock County towns of Lamoine through Gouldsboro as well as Steuben in Washington County. She was a reporter for the New York Times, United Press International and Reuters before moving to Maine. She also publicized medical research at Yale School of Medicine and scientific findings at Yale University for nine years.[email protected]

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