El Faro: 6 years later
It has been six years since El Faro struck Hurricane Joaquin, an act that sank the ship and claimed the lives of the entire crew. 33 people lost their lives that day. 33 families were torn apart, wondering why. Why had the 40-year-old ship sailed in a storm it had no chance of weathering? Why had TOTE Maritime, the owner of El Faro, not maintained the vessel better? Why hasn’t the captain changed course?
Today we have the answers. But that doesn’t make what happened any less gruesome or inexcusable.
SS El Faro Vapors directly in the path of a hurricane
Built in 1975 by Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Company, the freighter known as El Faro first launched as Porto Rico (1975-1991) then Northern Lights (1991-2006).
She operated as El Faro from 2005 until its sinking on October 1, 2015.
At 8:10 p.m. on September 29, 2015, El Faro left Jacksonville, Florida. She was heading to San Juan, Puerto Rico with a load of 391 shipping containers, approximately 294 trailers and cars, and a crew of 33. Hurricane Joaquin was still a tropical storm when El Faro is gone, but meteorologists from the National Hurricane Center predicted it would turn into a hurricane by the morning of October 1.
The route traced by El FaroCaptain Michael Davidson was supposed to keep the ship safe by staying south of the storm. 10 hours after departure, however, El Faro was advancing at 20 knots and had deviated from her set course. Klaus Luhta of the International Organization of Captains, Journeymen and Pilots said Captain Davidson headed straight for the storm’s path. Joaquin was classified as a hurricane on the morning of September 30. It increased in intensity until it was classified as a Category 3 hurricane at 11 p.m. that day.
El Faro did not succeed.
The ship’s last relayed position, according to Reuters, was around 23.52 ° N 74.02 ° W at 7:56 a.m. on October 1, which would place it in the wall of Joaquin’s eye – the area immediately to the outside the eye of the storm and the most dangerous and destructive part of a hurricane.
33 lives lost due to poor surveillance of a damaged vessel
Each person on board El Faro was lost when the ship sank. 33 people left Jacksonville with the firm intention of arriving safely in San Juan, but they never saw their families again. While it is true that Hurricane Joaquin sank the ship, her loss and the loss of the crew can be attributed to specific decisions and actions which, had they been taken differently, could have prevented this tragedy.
El FaroThe sinking of the is the deadliest maritime disaster involving an American ship in more than three decades. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducted a 26-month investigation into the incident, detailing its key findings in the following report: Sinking of US Freighter El Faro – Illustrated Digest. This illustrated guide provides considerable detail on El Faro, where she encountered Hurricane Joaquin, the configuration of the ship, where and how the cargo was held and how the ship ultimately sank.
The NTSB found a long list of security issues that contributed to the loss of El Faro and his crew:
- The captain “made decisions which put his ship and crew in danger”, using obsolete weather sources, making only minor heading corrections to avoid the hurricane, and failing to return to the bridge or change course after receiving three calls from deck officers.
- “Ineffective management of bridge resources” by TOTE did not allow the bridge team to navigate the vessel effectively and safely instead of giving all authority and responsibility to the master.
- “Inadequate supervision of the company” by TOTE, concerning not only its management of bridge resources, but also the failure to formally train crew members, the failure to follow El FaroJoaquin’s position in relation to Joaquin, and failure to support the captain.
- El Faro had a “lack of a suitable lifeboat”, carrying only open lifeboats instead of fully enclosed motorized lifeboats (TEMPSC), which are closed lifeboats. TEMPSCs are mandatory on all merchant ships, container ships, offshore platforms, floating installations and drilling vessels built since 1983. Because El Faro was built before this requirement was in place, the ship still had older lifeboats. These were not able to save the crew.
- “Flooding in cargo holds”, “loss of propulsion” and “flooding through air vents” give rise to doubts about the seaworthiness of the vessel. A combination of factors compromised the integrity of El Faro and, exacerbated by Joaquin, sank the ship. An open canopy and ventilation closures allowed water to seep into the cargo hold, bulk vehicles in hold 3 likely caused damage to the cargo hold. El Farofire pump system and a port list likely caused the main propulsion engine to shut down.
- Lack of an appropriate “safety management system” by TOTE, which contributed to the inability of the officers and crew to ensure that the correct procedures were followed when the ship encountered Joaquin. An appropriate damage control plan would have provided the crew with the necessary procedures and plans to prevent and manage flooding, loss of propulsion and list.
In total, the NTSB issued 63 safety recommendations in their entirety El Faro accident report.
Arnold & Itkin finds justice for El Faro Widows
After El Faro sunk, the families of her lost crew did not know what to do or where to turn. Three of the crew’s widows came to Arnold & Itkin for help. The firm’s maritime lawyers took care of the case and got to work, successfully holding TOTE accountable. Arnold & Itkin have secured confidential settlements for each widow to ensure their families are taken care of for life.
El FaroThe shipwreck may have been an accident caused by the sheer power of Mother Nature, but it was preventable. Yes, El Farothe captain sailed it through the heart of Hurricane Joaquin. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place, but the 40-year-old ship didn’t stand a chance. TOTE asserted that “the El Faro was a well maintained ship… ”but a former crew member said“ It was a bucket of rust… this ship was not supposed to be on the water. Another former crew member said there was rust everywhere and the cook’s room was constantly leaking water.
Had TOTE taken the appropriate measures to ensure the seaworthiness of the vessel and the implementation of safety standards, had it monitored the vessel and its captain more carefully and given the crew better means to cope with the dangers presented by hurricane Joaquin, El Faro and his crew could still be with us today.