The EL Faro disaster and lessons learned

In the April 2018 edition of Vanity Fair, there is an excellent article by William Langewiesche called “THE CLOCK IS TICKING”: INSIDE THE WORST U.S. MARITIME DISASTER IN DECADES.  It is the best article I have yet read about the loss of the SS El Faro on October 1, 2015, after the ship sailed into Hurricane Joaquin.  It was the worst American loss at sea since the 1983 sinking of the SS Marine Electric, which I wrote about here.  Thirty-three people died, including 8 crew members from New England and five Polish shipyard workers.

An identifying video still from the US Navy showing the stern of the El Faro after the wreck was found some three miles underwater.

I think it shocks people to learn that even now, in this day and age, a massive ship like this one can still be lost at sea with all hands.  It is genuinely frightening.  But the ship was 40 years old, and lacked a lot of the more modern safety equipment that makes a disaster like this more survivable.  Most notably, the ship lacked modern enclosed lifeboats, which are a substantial improvement over life rafts or old-style lifeboats.  The best type of lifeboats are freefall lifeboats, the ones that are capable of quickly launching, even in heavy seas, regardless of whether the ship is listing or not.  Below is a video showing what one of these looks like when it is launched.

It’s quite possible that this type of lifeboat would have allowed some, if not all, of the El Faro‘s crew to survive, at least that seems to be one of the conclusions the Coast Guard reached in their final report on the sinking.  We do know that the only lifeboat found after the sinking was badly damaged.

Still, the use of the lifeboats would not have been necessary at all had the ship not mistakenly gone into a hurricane.  In fact, the ship sailed into the strongest part of a major hurricane, facing 40 foot seas that would have easily come over her decks and winds in excess of 90 mph.  Members of the crew mention that cargo containers are going over the side on the ship’s black box recording, known as a voyage data recorder or VDR.

The VDR also recorded numerous instances of crew members, including some of the ship’s officers, voicing concern over whether or not the captain was taking the hurricane seriously enough.  It does become clear that he made choices based on a misunderstanding of the strength of the storm, probably basing some of his decisions on outdated weather information.

The company that owned and managed the ship, TOTE Maritime, also shares some of the blame, as it seems the captain felt some pressure (may not have been intended, but still) to make port on time or close to it and thus not make any major deviations from the ship’s planned course.  Captain Michael Davidson was hoping to become captain of a new ship, and he had already had problems with his employers before based on his cautious behavior.

I am not a maritime safety expert, clearly.  But I have my opinions as a maritime historian.  And it seems like no matter where the blame rests, this accident was, as the Coast Guard basically said, totally avoidable and preventable.


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