SS El Faro: Why did it sink?
SS El Faro was a 790-ft large cargo ship. On its ill fated voyage, it started sail from Jacksonville (Florida) bound for Peurto Rico towards east. So the route was right on the middle of Bermuda Triangle
. The ship was carrying about 390 shipping containers and around 290 vehicles. It was captained by Michael Davidson and had a total crew of 33, men and women, 28 of them Americans and 5 Polish. It departed on September 30, 2015 early in the morning (at 2am).
On the day of its departure, a tropical storm called Joaquin was reported. But it was hundreds of miles away on the east. Such storm is common around this time of the year and can easily be negotiated by ships of this class. The route charted out for the ship would anyway clear past the path of the storm by about 100 miles, so it was not considered any kind of threat by the captain. But the mother nature seems to have had other ideas.
SS El Faro
Source: TOTE Maritime (owner of El Faro)
Strangely next day on October 1, 2015, El Faro was under the siege of Joaquin. The tropical storm by then had transformed into a Category-3 fierce hurricane, came dashing towards the ship in no time and was pouncing on it. The hurricane started looping around the ship causing mammoth waves of up to 40ft high and wind speed of about 90 miles per hour. Having caused havoc for hours, quite unbelievably it went back the same way it came from.
At 7:30am on that day the last communication was received from the captain. He reported that the main engine failed, there was no power, the ship tilted by about 15 degrees on one side and was taking on water. However he said the crew were able to contain the flooding and were in control. After that it all fell silent.
Next day a massive search operation was launched by the US Coast Guard with help from US Air Force and US Navy. The first few days of the search was a struggle due to bad weather. Effective search started only from Sunday (October 4) onwards and it was called off by the sunset of October 7. By that time aircraft and coast guard ships had scanned over 240,000 square miles of the ocean and around the last known position of El Faro. All they could find was some oil slicks floating on water, some debris, and an orange life ring (presumably all from El Faro).
A few weeks later, US Navy Ship Apache was used to search the underwater area off Bahamas where El Faro's last position was reported. They used Sonar and several sophisticated diving instruments. The sonar along with a cable controlled underwater recovery vehicle known as CURV (fitted with lights), finally located the ship. El Faro was sitting silently upright on the sea floor at a depth of about 15,000ft in pitch darkness. The seabed was littered with many equipment and cargo that included even cars, microwave ovens etc. But there was no trace of any crew.
So what actually happened to El Faro and its crew?
This is one of the most recent and tragic incidents of Bermuda Triangle, and the worst in 33 years. It reminds you of another such incident that took place in 1983 when the ship SS Marine Electric sank off the coast of Virginia. It had 34 crew members, but 3 finally survived after spending an hour and half in freezing Atlantic. But the main difference is, SS Marine Electric had survivors to narrate what actually happened. For El Faro, there was nobody.
Below are some of the facts gathered from El Faro's history and the subsequent investigation reports:
1) El Faro was a 40-year old ship built in 1975. At this age, a cargo ship such as this was expected to have been sold out as scrap. But it was still in full operation. The owning company was TOTE Maritime.
2) El Faro was last overhauled in 2006. It has changed its name several times over the past. It was named Peurto Rico when built, later the name was changed to Northern Lights in 1991, and finally to El Faro at the time of its last overhaul in 2006. El Faro is a Spanish name, and in English it means Lighthouse. Some 2 decades back, the ship was cut into two pieces from the middle and length increased by 90ft.
3) El Faro also served the US Military in Iraq war.
4) At one point, the crew and the captain knew what they were heading towards. This is apparent from the message sent out by the lady crew Danielle Randolph to her mother "Not sure if you've been following the weather at all, but there is a hurricane out here and we are heading straight into it."
5) Several questions have popped up from the family members of the crew and the investigating body - Why did the ship keep heading towards the hurricane when it could have changed its course? Why didn't the owners TOTE Maritime interfere when they saw a disaster forthcoming? Why was the ship allowed to be in service despite being so old? Why the lifeboats were outdated and their conditions inadequate for survival?
6) When the sea swells, it's a common practice that the captain would use the engine power and keep the ship heading straight against the waves. This way some of the wave forces can be nullified. However if power fails (as in case of El Faro), the ship would turn sideways allowing the waves to hit its entire hull from one side. And this is when the ship can become most vulnerable to major damages. El Faro would have faced this situation.
7) And what about the crew? Well, it is likely that under such massive wave actions and wind gusts, many would have been thrown off board, got scattered miles apart and drowned into the depths. And some who were inside in the engine room, would have been entombed by El Faro itself. At such depth (of nearly 3 miles), the water temperature is near freezing point and visibility is zero. So direct human access is not possible.
Final Investigation Report
The Voyage Data Recorder (VDR) of the ship was finally recovered in August 2017 (which offered key information to what actually had happened). The VDR was found about 41 miles northeast of Acklins and Crooked Islands
of Bahamas. The Marine Board of Investigations of Coast Guard completed and published its final report on October 1, 2017.
Although the Coast Guard came out with several safety and administrative recommendations in the final report, they put the blame squarely on El Faro's Captain Michael Davidson, and stated that he underestimated the strength of the storm as well as the ship's vulnerability to such storm, and despite warnings from the crew members, he did not take enough measures to evade the storm.
The report also made strong observations against TOTE Marine (the ship's owning company) pointing out their gross negligence towards keeping dedicated safety officer on board. The company also used outdated life boats instead of the modern ones with better capability, and also made serious violations related to working hours and rest periods of the seamen, among others.
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