Two years to the day after the American cargo ship the SS El Faro sank in a major hurricane off the Bahamas, killing all 33 people on board, U.S. Coast Guard investigators in Jacksonville made public their assessment of the disaster and called for widespread institutional reforms.
The El Faro sinking was the worst American sea disaster in the last 37 years. Captain Michael Davidson sailed from Jacksonville almost directly to the center of Hurricane Joaquin, at nearly Category 4 strength, ignoring his navigators’ advice to change course. The aging Puerto Rico-bound freighter – the S.S. stood for steamship – had been sawn apart and welded back together during conversions over its 40 years in service. It carried open lifeboats not too different in design from those on the Titanic.
The report from the Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation into the sinking blames not only the captain and the shipowner, TOTE Inc., but also the ship’s inspectors and the Coast Guard itself for the accident.
“It is one of the worst commercial vessel casualties we’ve had,” said Capt. Jason Neubauer, head of the board. “”I think you have to take a wider look.”
The board’s recommendations would eliminate most of those open lifeboats and upend a decades-old system of grandfathering old ships to prevent them from having to meet modern safety and stability standards. They would give Coast Guard inspectors more oversight of the private companies, which are paid by shipowners to inspect most of the U.S.-flagged commercial fleet.
They would also alter an ancient shipboard culture that effectively makes a captain’s word law, enabling him or her to ignore officers’ concerns.
Glen Jackson, brother of El Faro seaman Jack Jackson, said in a phone interview that he approved of the new recommendations but wasn’t convinced they would go into effect soon. “They’ve been trying to get rid of open lifeboats since the Marine Electric (sinking) in 1983,” he said.
In an email, William Bennett III, attorney for Davidson's widow, Theresa Davidson, questioned the report.
"Based on this preliminary review, we believe there are serious omissions of critical facts and faulty analysis,” Bennett wrote.
“Although [Davidson] was the Captain of the El Faro and thus responsible for the safety of the vessel there are many other key factors that primarily caused the sinking of the vessel and thus we do not agree with all aspects of the USCG report," said Bennett in the message.
The report describes in horrifying detail the events that led up to the sinking. Both the National Hurricane Center and a commercial forecasting service TOTE made huge errors. Davidson based his initial course calculations on track and intensity forecasts that were out of date. But he discounted his officers’ advice, even though they had access to more up-to-date forecasts while he was off-duty.
As the ship steamed deeper into the hurricane, water began pouring in through an open scuttle and then likely through deteriorated vents. The ship leaned to one side. To compensate, Davidson made a rapid turn. That maneuver, according to the report, likely caused the sinking. It made the ship list even more severely to the other side. This interfered with the ship’s ability to pump lubricating oil, which shut down the engines. Without propulsion, the El Faro was at the mercy of Hurricane Joaquin’s waves, and it sank.
The report determined that the El Faro’s officers and crew were overworked and fatigued. They were distracted by TOTE’s efforts to decide which of them would transfer to brand new ships, and which would make an upcoming move with the El Faro to Alaska.
The report’s technical recommendations include new flooding alarms and video monitors throughout ships, and a review of the potential for water to enter new and old ships through vents in their hulls. All personal flotation devices used on commercial vessels would be equipped with locater beacons. Captains and officers would receive more training in handling ships in heavy weather, and both Coast Guard and private inspectors would get more training as well. The Coast Guard would have to approve cargo loading and stability software programs that are used widely in the industry.
“I think we should be more involved in the process,” Neubauer said.
Investigators declined to make any referrals for criminal prosecution but recommended civil sanctions against TOTE.
By Neubauer’s estimation, the resulting fines would amount to $80,000. TOTE has already paid out millions in settlements with the families of all the victims as well as the cargo-owners.
Members of the crew’s families received a private briefing on the report on Saturday, in the same union hall where they had spent six excruciating days during the search and rescue operation.
The Rev. Kempton Baldridge, a former mariner himself and chaplain at the Seamen’s Church Institute, who has been counseling many of the crew’s families, was with them for the briefing. “There was a gasp when they saw the recommendations against TOTE,” he said. “One or two people were a little sarcastic.”
He preached at an El Faro memorial service Sunday afternoon. “The people who (the crew members) loved don’t exist anymore,” he told the attendees. “Two years on, we’re different people - more generous.”
Darrell Wilson, a spokesperson for TOTE, said in a statement, “The El Faro and its crew were lost on our watch and for this we will be eternally sorry... The report details industry practices which need change. We are committed to working with every stakeholder on these comments and recommendations.”
Paige McCown, a spokesperson for the American Bureau of Shipping, the company that performed the El Faro’s private inspections, said in an email that it is reviewing the report. “ABS remains saddened at the loss of the El Faro and its crew and will continue working with the USCG and the marine industry in an effort to prevent such a catastrophic event from happening again,” said the message.
The crews’ families, TOTE, ABS, and a naval architecture firm employed by TOTE will now have 30 days to comment on the report. Coast Guard Commandant Paul F. Zukunft gets the final word. He will decide whether to accept, reject, or modify any of the recommendations or findings. Some can be implemented by the Coast Guard itself while others would require action from Congress.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is also investigating the sinking, will release its own report Dec. 12.