Why doomed freighter sailed right into a megastorm
Late in the evening of Sept. 30, 2015, two shipmates stood on the bridge of the SS El Faro, reviewing their captain’s order to stay on course.
“We don’t have any options here,” Third Mate Jeremie Riehm said to able seaman Jack Jackson. “We got nowhere to go.”
“Jesus, man,” Jack replied. “Don’t tell me anymore. I don’t even wanna hear it.”
The waves pounding the ship grew stronger, knocking it from side to side.
Two days earlier, analysts at the National Hurricane Center in Miami had spotted a group of clouds off the coast of Bermuda and tagged it “Tropical Depression Eleven,” predicting it would most likely head north and break up over the Atlantic. Instead, it veered southwest, toward the Bahamas.
As the storm — soon renamed Joaquin — evolved into a massive hurricane, most ships in the region plotted courses well away from its punishing winds. But, as Rachel Slade recounts in her new book, “Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro” (Ecco/HarperCollins), there was one tragic exception.
When El Faro left Jacksonville, Fla., the night before on its regular Puerto Rico run, carrying 25 million pounds of cargo, Capt. Michael Davidson figured he’d be able to stay well south of Joaquin’s path as it died out. That would be good news for the crew of the 790-foot steam freighter, which was in less than ideal condition. They hadn’t even had a working wind gauge for several months.
Perhaps more critically, El Faro was so old that its owners, a New Jersey-based shipping company called TOTE Maritime, were exempt from safety regulations that required modern freighters to have covered lifeboats and GPS-enabled emergency beacons.
The crew of El Faro had several sources for weather data, but Captain Davidson didn’t realize that the one he relied on to plot his course suffered from severe time lag. Other officers on the bridge slowly realized that they were headed directly into Joaquin’s path, but Davidson — perhaps concerned about what his bosses at TOTE would say if he took a slower, more costly route around the hurricane — refused to back down.
“We’re going into the storm,” Davidson told his crew, once the evidence became impossible to ignore. “And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
On the morning of Oct. 1, Davidson placed a call to a TOTE representative on the shore.
“We’ve got a hull breach,” he reported, explaining that the ship was taking on water and that it was already tilted so severely on its port side that the steam engines had lost oil pressure and shut down. He would be sending a distress signal, but he seemed to believe they could still get the situation under control.
Soon after that phone call, all contact with El Faro was lost.
After Joaquin died down, the Coast Guard led a search for the freighter, although without a GPS signal it was difficult to pin down its final location.
On Oct. 7, the Coast Guard announced that the 33 men and women aboard El Faro were presumed dead. The hunt for the ship’s wreckage continued, though, and at the end of October searchers found its husk on the ocean floor, 15,000 feet below sea level. The mast, which held the ship’s voyage data recorder (the nautical equivalent of an airplane’s “black box”), wasn’t found for another six months, and it wasn’t until the summer of 2016 that they could finally retrieve the VDR.
The audio recordings revealed how the other officers dealt with the recognition that they were sailing into danger, even as Captain Davidson spent the bulk of the voyage in his cabin.
Hamm was paralyzed by fear as the freighter rolled onto its side
Soon after Riehm and Jackson’s late-night conversation, Second Mate Danielle Randolph came up with a last-ditch course change that would save them from the brunt of the storm. She called Captain Davidson in his quarters. The VDR recorded her end of the conversation, as she informed Davidson that Joaquin had just been upgraded to a Category 3 hurricane and recommended turning south, putting the Bahamas between them and the winds, now approaching 100 miles per hour. She listened to his response, then hung up the phone.
“He said to run it,” she told her able seaman. Instead of avoiding the storm, El Faro would be getting even closer to it. Less than an hour later, the VDR picked up the massive thuds as cargo containers broke loose and began to bounce around the hold below them.
Yet the audio also captures the captain’s final act of heroism. Within minutes of his sending the distress signal, conditions aboard El Faro deteriorated so badly that Davidson gave the order to abandon ship — but remained on the bridge with one of his helmsmen, Frank Hamm.
“Come on, Frank,” Davidson said. “We gotta move. You gotta get up.”
Hamm, however, was paralyzed by fear as the freighter rolled onto its side. “I need a ladder,” he cried out. “I need someone to help me . . . I’m a goner.”
“No, you’re not,” Davidson assured him. “Frank, let’s go.”
The recording ends soon after that.
The Coast Guard’s formal inquiry into the sinking of El Faro was completed in the fall of 2017, placing the majority of the blame on Captain Davidson’s shoulders. But the final report also sharply criticized TOTE — which steadfastly maintained that it had fulfilled all its legal obligations — for keeping El Faro in service despite the ship’s many safety problems.
For the loved ones El Faro’s crew left behind, that provided little comfort. Because federal law limits shipowners’ liability in the case of an accident, all the families settled with TOTE for undisclosed amounts. The company continues to run cargo between Florida and Puerto Rico to this day.
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