What is being called the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a US-flagged vessel in more than 30 years seems to come down to one question, “Why would a seasoned Master take his ship into the path of a hurricane?”
At about 0815 pm US EDT on 29 September, 790-foot El Faro and her 33 crew sailed from Jacksonville, Florida bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico. The ship was a 40 year-old, US Flagged, combination roll-on/roll-off and lift-on/liftoff which did this run regularly.
Three hours before, the US National Hurricane Center had issued a warning that tropical storm Joaquin was likely to mature into a hurricane and cross El Faro’s normal track.
As her voyage progressed, it seems that Second Mate Danielle Randolph emailed her mother, “We are heading straight into it, Category 3, last we checked. Winds are super bad. Love to everyone.”
Her American Captain, 53 year old Mike Davidson, emailed that he intended to take a route south of the predicted path of the hurricane, giving the storm a 65 mile berth.
At 2100 on 30 September, about 200 miles northwest of the storm, El Faro was making 20 knots on a heading directly into the hurricane’s projected track.
Then, 16 hours after passing and exchanging messages with her sister, SS El Yunque, Captain Davidson made a satellite phone call to the ship’s owners, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, advising that her main propulsion had failed giving no reason, she was taking on water and she was listing 15%.
Just after midnight on the morning of 1 October El Faro transmitted her final AIS position update.
According to electronic alert system data sent by the vessel at 0717 EDT on 1 October, El Faro’s last reported position was off the southern Bahamas, about 20 miles from the edge of the eye of the now Category 3 hurricane with winds over 130 miles an hour.
The USCG was not in direct voice communications with El Faro throughout but began receiving electronic distress alerts from the Ship’s Security Alert System (SSAS), Inmarsat-C and an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB).
Nothing more was heard. Eight days later, the Coast Guard called off search-and-rescue having found no survivors, one body and debris including a damaged lifeboat.
A 226 foot US Navy ocean tug, USNS Apache (T-ATF-172) sailed from Little Creek, Virginia on 19 October with specialized equipment to locate and document the wreckage on the sea floor and recover the voyage data recorder. By 26 October, Apache had been unable to detect any signs of the vessel.
Not since the 1983 sinking of the 605- foot bulk carrier SS Marine Electric, 30 miles off the coast of Virginia in 130 feet of water, has a large US Flagged commercial vessel been lost. Thirty one of her 34 crew died. USCG investigations and independent examinations of the wreck determined that she had been un-seaworthy and subsequently it was discovered that much of Marine Electric’s paperwork had been falsified.