NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD PHOTO

Safety Board releases photos of sunken El Faro



CASTINE — The new year got off to a grim start as the National Transportation Safety Board released the first photos and videos of the freighter El Faro, which sank off the Bahamas with all hands in Hurricane Joaquin last October.

Five Maine Maritime Academy graduates were among the ship’s crew of 33.Among the dead were: the ship’s master, Captain Michael Davidson, 53, of Windham, a 1988 MMA graduate; 2nd Mate Danielle Randolph, 34, of Rockland, a 2004 graduate; Michael Holland, 25, of Wilton, a 2012 graduate; Dylan Meklin, 23, a 2010 graduate of Rockland District High School and a 2015 graduate of the academy; and Mitchell Kuflik of Brooklyn, N.Y., who graduated from Maine Maritime in 2011.

Holland, Meklin and Kuflik were all 3rd assistant engineers. Twenty-eight U.S. crewmembers and five Polish workers were on board the ship when it sank. The U.S.-flagged El Faro, owned by Sea Star Line, LLC, and operated by TOTE Services, went missing on Oct. 1 en route from Jacksonville, Fla., to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The wreckage of the ship was located by a U.S. Navy tug Apache on Oct. 31 in about 15,000 feet of water near its last known position off Crooked Island in the Bahamas.

NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD PHOTO

NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD PHOTO

On Sunday, the NTSB released nine underwater photographs and 47 minutes of video footage that show the sunken ship and the debris field around it. The photographs can be seen at flickr.com/photos/ntsb/sets/72157659149033059.

Excerpts of the video taken by the remotely operated CURV-21 Navy search vehicle used to document the wreckage and debris field are available on the NTSB’s YouTube channel: youtu.be/q3h8HbloK0o.

The complete video is available on the safety board’s docket at go.usa.gov/c5vYV.

According to the NTSB, the 790-foot roll-on/roll-off cargo ship El Faro sailed from Jacksonville on Sept. 29 while what ultimately grew to be Hurricane Joaquin was still classified by the National Weather Service as a tropical storm. Early in the morning on Thursday, Oct. 1, the ship’s captain reported to TOTE by radio that the El Faro had lost engine power, had taken on water and was listing 15 degrees to one side but that the flooding had been controlled. That conversation was recorded at about 7:20 a.m. and was the last time the ship was heard from.

The Coast Guard began an aerial and sea search for the ship while the hurricane was still raging. During a search that lasted seven days, the Coast Guard found the body of just one dead person, clad in a survival suit, floating in the water, A heavily damaged lifeboat “with markings consistent with those on board the El Faro,” a partially submerged life raft, a survival suit, life jackets, life rings, cargo containers, Styrofoam, packaged food and an oil sheen were also found.

On Oct. 30, the search tug discovered the hull of the El Faro resting on the sea floor in an upright position with the stern buried in approximately 30 feet of sediment. The navigation bridge and the deck below were separated from the vessel.

Eventually, the bridge was found, but the ship’s voyage data recorder — similar to the “black box” installed in commercial aircraft — was missing. It still has not been located.

According to the NTSB report, the search did not find any bodies.

Within weeks after the search ended, a number of lawsuits were filed on behalf of several families of the missing crew members —including at least three from Maine — seeking to recover damages from TOTE, Sea Star or the estate of Captain Davidson for negligence.

At the end of October, the ship’s owner and operator filed suit in a federal district court in Jacksonville to limit their liability for the sinking to an amount equal to the value of the ship and its cargo.

On Nov. 4, Judge Harvey E. Schlesinger signed an order that requires all lawsuits arising out of the El Faro sinking to be filed in the federal court in Florida. The judge’s order also made an initial determination that the value of the ship and its cargo was $15,309,003.50 and required TOTE to post a bond in that amount.

The families who sue will have the opportunity to contest that valuation as well as to argue that El Faro was unseaworthy and that the owner should not be able to restrict damages to the value of the ship and its freight.

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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