The last hours for the crew of the El Faro were confusing and terrifying. Despite the advice to avoid the storm, the captain refused to veer from the ship’s regular course. The crew members had no idea whether they were heading into or away from Hurricane Joaquin. And perhaps the final blow to the crew’s fate was the status of the ship itself: not well, and close to being added to the U.S. Coast Guard’s “target list” of ships that needed more thorough inspections.
We know all of this thanks to a must-read story from the Associated Press’s Jason Dearen, which pieces together a U.S. Coast Guard investigation, interviews with the family of the crew and actual recordings from the sinking ship itself.
The narrative is harrowing — Mercedes-Benz cars breaking loose in the cargo hold, ocean swells that were so large they threw the boat off course and a hull that was taking on water. To make matters worse (if they could be any worse) the crew had no idea where the storm was or how intense the conditions were right over their own heads.
“[Second mate Danielle] Randolph could not know exactly how hard the wind was blowing,” Dearen wrote. “El Faro’s anemometer, or wind gauge, had been broken for years.”
The lack of onboard instruments would end up being a fraction of El Faro’s troubles. The real problem was that the weather data system the captain used — despite having access to other Internet sources — was sending forecasts that were nearly a day old. When the crew members overlaid the position of the boat, it showed they should have been heading out of the storm.
What they didn’t know was that Hurricane Joaquin rapidly intensified in a period of 24 hours, which made its course difficult to predict.
“The uncertainty in track forecast right now cannot be overstated, and it is not even represented well by the official track forecast by the National Hurricane Center,” the Capital Weather Gang wrote on the same day the El Faro was listing. “Unfortunately in this situation, the spread in the forecast models is far greater in size than the cone of uncertainty in the official forecast.”
Randolph and the crew wanted to change course — to go around the storm and try to avoid as much of it as possible.
But the captain, Michael Davidson had another opinion: no big deal. He likened the Category 4 hurricane to an average day in Alaskan waters, where he had previously worked on freighters. Even when he noticed that the air pressure was falling — a sign that they were heading into the storm instead of away from it — he maintained they could outrun it.
The difference may have been the El Faro wasn’t worthy of a storm like Joaquin. As it took on water, it listed to the side, which prevented oil from getting to its semi-archaic engine. Once the ship lost the engine, it was doomed. All 33 crew members were lost.
Dearen reported that TOTE Maritime, the owner and operator of the El Faro, was working to fix some of the problems the crew faced before their deaths:
TOTE defended its safety record, and emphasized that the El Faro was permitted to operate by the Coast Guard despite the issues flagged by inspectors. The company also said it had been working on fixing the problems with its emergency answering service, but had not gotten to it before El Faro’s voyage. It now is paying for a more expensive storm forecasting tool for its entire fleet.
Read the full, tragic story from Dearen and the AP.