Lost at sea: Will the questions around the sinking of El Faro ever be answered?

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As investigators probed the loss of El Faro and lawyers sued on behalf of some of the 33 crewmembers lost when the cargo ship sank Oct. 1 in Hurricane Joaquin, Maine Maritime Academy mourned the loss of five of its own in the disaster.

El Faro was a 790-foot roll-on/roll-off, lift-on/lift-off cargo ship built in 1974 and updated in 1992 and 2006. Her maximum speed was 22 knots.

“This terrible tragedy reminds us that nothing in life is certain,” academy president Bill Brennan told the college’s 950 students at a gathering on its campus in Castine.

Maine Maritime lost five graduates when the 790-foot U.S.-flagged roll-on/roll-off, lift-on/lift-off carrier went down in 15,000 feet 35 miles off the southeastern Bahamas’ Crooked and Acklins islands. They were the ship’s captain, Mike Davidson, class of 1988; second mate Danielle Randolph, 2005; and third assistant engineers Mitchell Kuflik, 2011, Mike Holland, 2012, and Dylan Meklin, 2015.

“Our community will grieve this together,” Brennan said. “Those of us who sail on ships know that while the sea is to be respected, the sea is not to be feared. That is why we train, that is why we prepare, that is why we are here [at the academy].”

Covering 183,000 square miles over six days, a flotilla of rescue craft — C-130 aircraft, H-60 helicopters, cutters, weather planes, tugboats — found one body (still unidentified at press time) in a survival suit, a heavily damaged lifeboat, a partially submerged life raft, a survival suit, life jackets, life rings, cargo containers, Styrofoam, packaged food and an oil sheen.

“We had two funerals last week,” Don Fiske, an MMA alumni association board member, said in October. “There were flags at half-mast all over the state. Four [of the graduates] still lived here in Maine; another lived in Brooklyn. It affected the whole state.”

On Oct. 31, a month after the sinking, a search team aboard the USNS Apache found El Faro at a depth of 15,000 feet near the ship’s last known position. Searchers used a side-scanning sonar called Orion to find the wreck, which was in an upright position with the stern buried in 30 feet of sediment. The navigation bridge and deck had separated from the ship, along with the voyage data recorder, or black box. Searchers deployed a deep-ocean remotely operated vehicle called CURV 21 to survey and confirm the identity of the wreckage, and two weeks later located the bridge, about a mile from the wreckage, but not the black box, which evidently had detached from the bridge. On November 16, the search for the VDR was discontinued.

Information recorded in the black box would have helped investigators determine what happened to El Faro — why it steamed into the path of the Category 4 hurricane, why the ship’s main engine broke down, why seawater breached the hull and what catastrophic event sealed the fate of the ship and its crew.

The 40-year-old El Faro was on a weekly run from Jacksonville, Florida, to Puerto Rico. It was carrying groceries, cars and retail products packed into 391 lift-on/lift-off containers topside and 294 roll-on/roll-off trailers and cars below deck that had been driven aboard through large bay doors in the side of the hull.

The National Transportation Safety Board, in an Oct. 20 interim report, details some of the facts. A little more than three hours before El Faro departed Jacksonville at 8:15 p.m. Sept. 29, the National Hurricane Center issued an advisory predicting that Tropical Storm Joaquin would become a hurricane. Less than three hours later the Bahamian government issued a hurricane watch for the central Bahamas.

At 1:12 p.m. Sept. 30, El Faro’s captain emailed a safety official at TOTE Services, the ship’s Jacksonville-based operator, that he planned to take a route south of Joaquin’s predicted path and pass 65 miles from the storm’s center. About 11 hours later, early on the morning of Oct. 1, the hurricane center forecast 30-foot seas and sustained winds of 74 mph, increasing to 121 mph, near the hurricane’s center.

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In a recorded satellite phone call made to the emergency call center at TOTE at 7 o’clock that morning, El Faro’s captain told the operator that there had been a hull breach — a scuttle (hatch) had blown open — letting water into hold No. 3. He also said the ship had lost its main propulsion, and the engineers could not restart it. The Coast Guard adds that the captain reported the ship listing at 15 degrees.

TOTE, in a Q&A for the crew’s families, says that at this point “crew had secured the scuttle and were successfully pumping out the water from the hold.” The operator connected the captain with TOTE’s Designated Person Ashore, who assists in emergencies. The DPA informed investigators that the captain told him pretty much the same thing he told the operator, and estimated the height of the seas that El Faro was encountering at 10 to 12 feet — significantly less than forecast.

Seventeen minutes later, the Coast Guard received distress alerts from three sources on El Faro: the Ship’s Security Alert System, its Inmarsat-C Alert, and an EPIRB, which put the ship 20 miles from the hurricane’s eyewall. The ship then went silent.

“What would cause a ship like that to catastrophically disappear?” asks Richard Dein, a retired Coast Guard officer and expert witness who has worked as a master on passenger ferries and towboats. The captain’s report, followed 17 minutes later by three distress signals and then silence, suggests that “something happened real fast and real big,” he says. “Right now there are a lot of questions and not many answers, which is usually the case at this point in an investigation.”

For now, there are at least three plausible theories.

• One of the ship’s two boilers exploded.

El Faro was powered by a fuel oil-fired steam engine. On Sept. 11, TOTE received permission from the Coast Guard to shut down one of the ship’s two boilers so it could be inspected by a boiler service company during a passage between San Juan and Jacksonville. The boiler was returned to service, but as a result of the inspection service was recommended for both boilers during a drydock that was scheduled for Nov. 6. Dein says cooler seawater pouring in through the blown scuttle could have gotten to the superheated boiler, causing it to crack and blow up.

• The ship capsized suddenly.

NTSB says the terminal manager in Jacksonville told investigators that El Faro met stability criteria before she left port, and stevedores said all cargo had been double-lashed, per company policy, to prevent it from shifting. Yet without power to steam through the seas, she would have wallowed. Listing at 15 degrees with seawater from the blown scuttle sloshing from one side to the other, El Faro could have gotten caught in a trough, taken a big wave broadside, rolled and sank.

El Faro’s last contact point was only 20 miles from the center of Hurricane Joaquin. Debris was found, and pingers were deployed to locate the wreck on the seafloor.

“A 15-degree list — that is serious, serious flooding,” says Capt. Bill Doherty, a master mariner, Navy veteran and former safety manager for Norwegian Cruise Line who now leads Nexus Consulting’s maritime division. Doherty suggests that because of the ship’s age, one of its watertight doors may have blown out, letting water pour in. El Faro’s age was twice that of the “normal service age” of today’s commercial carriers, he says. In a ship 40 years old, the watertight integrity of hatches and bulkheads can be suspect.

• The hull, after four decades of stresses at sea, broke apart.

“The American fleet is old,” Doherty says. “Despite what you hear [about Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping inspections], a ship is a ship, steel is steel, and rust is rust.”

The NTSB, in its interim report, says the shipping bureau and the Coast Guard completed statutory surveys of El Faro this past spring, and TOTE rectified all deficiencies. Bureau inspectors also tested the main and auxiliary power plants, as well as the ship’s safety systems, in June and found them satisfactory. Doherty is not satisfied that El Faro’s recertification made it seaworthy. “The proof of the pudding is that this ship sank,” he says. “We’ve got to take a look at this whole picture [of how old ships get recertified].”

El Faro was scheduled for redeployment to a regular run between Washington and Alaska later this year, so TOTE had been modifying the vessel since August to prepare it for its new duties. TOTE says there were five Polish contract workers aboard the ship laying electrical cable during its final voyage, but their work would not have affected the ship’s watertight integrity or propulsion.

Another big question facing investigators is why El Faro blundered into the path of Hurricane Joaquin. As early as Sept. 29, forecasters were saying it would intensify into a storm with 121-mph winds and 30-foot seas.

When El Faro left Jacksonville, the officers and crew were monitoring what was then Tropical Storm Joaquin, TOTE says, defending the decision of TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico to authorize the voyage. Phil Greene, TOTE’s president and CEO, said in a meeting with the families of those aboard the ship in Jacksonville that the captain had planned to sail around the hurricane. En route he conferred with El Faro’s sister ship, which was returning to Jacksonville along a similar route, and decided the weather was good enough to proceed. “Regrettably he suffered a mechanical problem with his main propulsion system, which left him in the path of the storm,” Greene said.

Mario Vittone, a retired Coast Guard search-and-rescue trainer and expert on survival and safety at sea, says the El Faro sinking is an unfortunate example of the inherent risk in steaming toward a hurricane, no matter how good a plan you have for steering clear of it. “Everything has to go perfectly for the plan to work,” he says. Often things do go well, and the captain’s decision to sail is justified in his eyes and the company’s, but the one time things don’t go well, disaster can ensue.

“If El Faro hadn’t lost power, this probably would have been just another ‘good decision,’” Vittone says. However, he doesn’t think it’s ever a good decision to leave the dock when a hurricane is forecast along the route. A structural or mechanical failure, or navigational error, could leave the captain without options to escape the storm’s fury.

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“These guys dance with hurricanes all the time,” Vittone says. Why? He believes the unspoken rule is that the captain can decline to sail when a hurricane threatens, but if he does, the operators will find another captain to take his place, keep the schedule, and prevent delays and financial losses. Decline an assignment once too often, and a captain could lose his or her job. “That’s the reality,” Vittone says.

Dein doesn’t understand the decision to leave the dock, either, or to keep heading toward the storm. “To get that close to Joaquin befuddles me,” he says. “The storm was forecast to go to a Category 4 or 5, and it was going up the coast.”

Doherty concurs: “The steamship company could have said, ‘You can’t sail.’ ” Or, having decided to sail, the captain could have given the storm a wider berth from the get-go. “If, in fact, he had a seaworthy vessel, he should have had enough fuel to run away from the hurricane,” he says. “He had 17 knots to steam in.” But had he given Joaquin more room, it would have cost TOTE time and money.

Would TOTE have supported that call?

“I’ve got a lot of concerns about why this voyage was undertaken,” Doherty says. He also wonders about the seaworthiness of the vessel, its certification, its age and the overall condition of ships sailing under the Jones Act, which requires vessels sailing in coastwise trade — between U.S. ports — to be U.S.-built. U.S. builds are so expensive that many vessels stay in service far too long, he says. “I support the Jones Act. I just want to make these ships safer.”

At press time, at least four wrongful-death suits on behalf of crewmembers, and another on behalf of the Polish contract workers, had been filed, alleging that El Faro was unseaworthy and that TOTE and its parent company, Sea Star Line, were negligent in sending the ship and crew into the storm.

Another major question, according to New York-based admiralty and maritime lawyer James E. Mercante: If there was fault, did it occur aboard the vessel or on shore? One oft-used defense of vessel owners is to try to prove that an accident was not the company’s fault, but resulted from a shipboard decision or crew error, and thereby limit the owner’s liability under federal admiralty law.

TOTE has taken steps to limit its liability, asserting in an Oct. 30 filing in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville that it is in no way liable because it had “exercised due diligence to make El Faro seaworthy in all respects and to equip and supply El Faro with suitable engines, machinery, apparel, appliances, personnel, and other necessary and appropriate equipment, all in good order and suitable for their intended operations.”

The Coast Guard searched for six days before calling off the operation. Thirty-three crewmembers were lost, and many questions about El Faro’s last hours remain unanswered.

The filing also pointedly says that after El Faro’s departure and during the voyage it was the master, not the home office, that “altered the planned course … to account for the hurricane’s expected track.” It goes on to say that El Faro’s loss “was not due to any fault, neglect or want of care” of TOTE’s, nor its master, crew or employees.

If there eventually is a finding of liability against TOTE, it asks for a limitation on that liability — for the deaths of all 33 crewmembers — of $15,309,003.50, which under a law originally enacted in 1851 is $420 per gross registered ton, plus the value of the ship’s cargo.

A suit filed on behalf of the five Polish contractor workers says that contrary to TOTE’s statements, it was negligent and is liable for the deaths of the crew, and the $15 million is insufficient to compensate for their families’ losses.

It’s likely that it will be a long time before the many questions raised by El Faro’s sinking are answered.

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue.