On Thursday morning, Laurie Bobillot received what she prayed were not her daughter’s final words.
“Not sure if you’ve been following the weather at all,” wrote her daughter, Danielle Randolph, from aboard the American container ship El Faro, “but there is a hurricane out here and we are heading straight into it.”
“Out here” meant en route from Jacksonville, Fla., to Puerto Rico. In other words, the middle of the Bermuda Triangle.
“Winds are super bad and seas are not great,” wrote Randolph, ominously.
Bobillot was following the weather, of course. Most Americans were worried that Hurricane Joaquin might rain out football games or cancel backyard barbecues.
But for Bobillot, Joaquin was much more serious. She watched as the hurricane churned its way through the Caribbean, barreling toward El Faro — and her daughter — with wind speeds up to 140 miles per hour. All the while, Bobillot waited for her daughter to call from safety.
She is still waiting.
Four days after Randolph’s last message, she and her 32 fellow crew members remain missing at sea. Just hours after she sent her e-mail, El Faro began to take on water and tilt to one side, according to the ship’s owner, TOTE Maritime. Then the ship’s communications suddenly went quiet.
It hasn’t been heard from since.
For four days, the U.S. Coast Guard has been searching for El Faro. Flying through the hurricane to look for the ship, Coast Guard planes have scoured more than 70,000 square nautical miles for the 790-foot vessel. They have spotted life rings, debris and an oil slick near El Faro’s last known location — but no signs of the ship, or of survivors.
Now families are fearing the worst, while also trying to maintain hope for a miracle.
“We’ve have been going with no sleep for four days,” Laurie Bobillot told The Washington Post on Sunday night from Jacksonville, Fla., where she and other family members of the crew have gathered.
“This is torture,” echoed Mary Shevory, whose daughter, Mariette Wright, was on El Faro. “I’m just praying to God they find the ship and bring my daughter and everyone on it home,” she told the Associated Press.
The maritime mystery bears a striking similarity to another incident more than 30 years ago. In 1983, a 39-year-old cargo ship called the SS Marine Electric sank off the coast of Virginia. Of its 34-member crew, only three survived after spending an hour and a half in the frigid Atlantic. The sinking of the Marine Electric spurred safety reforms in the shipping industry.
Now the hope is that those reforms, including better lifeboats, help El Faro’s crew avoid a similar fate.
So far, however, the signs are not good.
El Faro is 40 years old, even older than the Marine Electric when it went down. Although its age alone doesn’t make it unsafe (the ship was overhauled in 2006), it doesn’t help.
“It’s got all the problems of an aging ship,” said Vincent Brannigan, a professor emeritus of law and technology at the University of Maryland, according to the Bangor Daily News. “1975, that’s a long time ago for this type of ship.”
Then there are the items found at sea. The first one was an orange life ring, spotted Saturday about 120 miles northeast of Crooked Island in the Bahamas. According to the AP, authorities have confirmed that the life ring came from El Faro. On Sunday, Coast Guard planes spotted debris and an oil sheen in the same area. And TOTE Maritime said one of its search ships had found a container that appeared to be from El Faro.
But “there has been no sighting of the El Faro or any life boats,” company president Tim Nolan said, according to the AP.
“But even with a ship this big it’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Barry Young, whose nephew Shaun Riviera is among the missing crew members.
If there is any hope left, it lies in the quality of the crew.
“My husband is extremely capable, he has extensive training,” Theresa Davidson, wife of 53-year-old El Faro captain Michael Davidson, told the Daily Mail. “If anyone can handle a situation like that it’s my husband so we are hopeful that he’s just waiting it out and that they’ll be rescued today,” she told the publication Friday.
“This is a top-notch captain. He’s well-educated,” Bobillot told the AP. “He would not have put the life of his crew in danger, and would not have put his own life in danger, had he known there was danger out there. He had the best intentions. He has a family too, and he wanted to go home to them too. That storm just came up way too fast.”
Bobillot’s daughter, Randolph, was no stranger to the seas either.
Born at Camp Lejeune to Bobillot and Marine Kenneth Randolph, Danielle decided to follow her father into a life on the ocean. She joined the merchant marine, the civilian fleet that ships cargo during peacetime but can become an auxiliary branch of the Navy during war. Her graduation photo shows her beaming in a spotless white dress suit.
For several years, Randolph sailed the same route from Jacksonville to San Juan, jokingly calling the Puerto Rican capital “the end of the world.” Like many sailors, she seemed to hold mixed feelings toward the ocean. “Prison, serving my ten week sentence,” she wrote before one stint at sea. But she also shared stunning photos of her travels on social media and seemed to enjoy her itinerant life.
“She is usually the only female aboard the ship, but even though she is a short little girl she can handle her own well,” Bobillot told the Daily Mail. “When she’s home, she’s all girlie girl. She’s an avid barbie doll collector and loves to dress up retro style, shop, and bake. Ever since an extremely young age, she wanted to work on the ocean.”
That career may have claimed her life.
When El Faro left Jacksonville for San Juan on Sept. 29, its captain and crew had an idea of what lay ahead. Joaquin could be seen on the radar, coiling over the Caribbean like a snake about to strike.
“On Wednesday [Capt. Davidson] sent a message to the home office with the status of the developing tropical storm he said he had very good weather … and that his crew was prepared,” said Phil Greene, president and CEO of TOTE Services, Inc., adding that El Faro had been built to work in the rough seas off Alaska and was “a sturdy, rugged vessel that was well maintained and that the crew members were proud of.”
The next day, however, the massive container ship was under siege from stiff waves and powerful winds. Mother Nature seemed to have turned against El Faro, whose name in Spanish ironically means “lighthouse.”
Hurricane Joaquin “just kind of circled the area [surrounding the ship] and made a loop of about 100 miles or so,” U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss told the Bangor Daily News on Saturday. “It went down and circled around it, and now it’s going back out almost the same way it came in. It’s kind of unbelievable.”
Some time early on Thursday, Oct. 1, Randolph sent her last message to her mother. At 7:20 a.m. that same day, El Faro sent out a distress signal saying it had lost electricity, was taking on water and was listing 15 degrees, but that the situation was still “manageable.”
When the ship suddenly went silent, authorities launched a search for El Faro. But rescuers were hampered by the hurricane, and it wasn’t until Sunday that the storm completely passed.
Of the 33-member crew, 28 are American and five are Polish. Over the weekend, worried family members from around the world headed to Jacksonville to hear the latest news about the search for their loved ones.
Andrew Dabrowski came from Poland in the hope of finding his nephew, Peter, alive and on shore.
“Every day you hope and hope,” he told the Florida Times-Union. “Three days, nothing message. Nobody knows. Too many questions, but nothing answered.”
Laurie Bobillot and her daughter, Danielle Randolph.
Some of the questions have been directed toward TOTE and its decision to have Davidson and El Faro head directly into a developing storm.
“Normally my husband tells me that they have a different route that they take to go around the storm,” Rochelle Hamm, wife of missing crew member Frank Hamm, told USA Today. “I don’t know why they didn’t steer the ship in a different direction. This is totally unacceptable.”
Others have wondered whether the ship’s top-heavy arrangement — with 391 containers topside and 293 vehicles below, according to USA Today — contributed to a potential capsizing.
The route was one of regular risk. Setting aside the storied and perilous history of the Bermuda Triangle, the path from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico runs right along “one of the hurricane alleys of the world,” master mariner Kelly Sweeney told the Portland Press Herald.
Sweeney told the paper that it was possible El Faro’s crew is safe and simply adrift in a lifeboat, waiting to be found. But with each passing day, that scenario appears less likely.
Coast Guard officials scheduled another press conference for Monday at 10 a.m. Eastern time regarding the search.
Randolph herself seemed well versed in the subject of storms at sea. On her Facebook page, she once posted a photo of a thick wall of dark clouds forming on the horizon.
Perhaps she knew that she was in serious trouble on Thursday when she sent her final message.
“Love to everyone,” she signed off.
This post has been updated.