When the cargo ship El Faro vanished with its 33 crewmen off the Bahamas, sailors around the world — bound by their complex relationship with a sea that they can love, hate or fear depending on the weather — felt their hearts crack. Perhaps none did so more than Gene Kelly, one of only three survivors of the last big American cargo ship disaster, the 1983 sinking of the Marine Electric, which took the lives of 31 of his crewmates.
But when the family of one of the El Faro crew held a memorial service near his little Massachusetts town last week, Kelly couldn’t bring himself to enter the church. “I got to the door and I had to turn away,” he told the Herald. “What could I possibly say to them? ‘I’m sorry your son didn’t survive, when I did?’”
In a week full of questions about the Oct. 1 disappearance of the El Faro, Kelly’s may have been the most poignant, but it was hardly the only one with no obvious answers. In an age when any teenager can load his cell phone with a weather-radar app, why would a veteran captain steer his ship directly into the teeth of a hurricane? Why didn’t it take evasive measures? What could have happened to the El Faro so suddenly that the crew had no time to send distress signals or, apparently, try to abandon ship?
And, most hauntingly, even though the answer may seem obvious to the rest of the world, the half-question, half-prayer from friends and family members of the El Faro crew: Could any of them still be alive, somewhere, somehow, waiting for rescue by searchers who’ve now been called off?
“He's always told me, I never give up, I never quit, I never fail, and I am holding on to that with every ounce of my being,” Emily Pusatere, the wife of the El Faro’s chief engineer Richard, told reporters when the Coast Guard ended the search Wednesday. Agreed Megan Rycraft, a licensed captain with 10 years at sea who had a friend aboard the El Faro: “I don’t think I’m ready to stop hoping.... These families are never gonna give up hope. Why would they? They shouldn't.”
Definitive answers about what happened to the El Faro after its last known communication — a distress call at 7:20 a.m. on Oct. 1, as the category 4 Hurricane Joaquin sped toward it — will have to await the search for the ship’s voyage data recorder, similar to the so-called black box carried by airliners, and the official investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Neither is likely to yield results any time soon; the voyage data recorder, bolted to the El Faro’s deck, is lost 15,000 feet under water, and the NTSB probe is expected to take 12 to 18 months.
But maritime experts are already identifying some key areas of concern about the ship and its maneuvers on its final voyage, as well as detailed opinions on what happened in the last moments before it disappeared.
OLD SHIPS NEVER DIE. BUT SHOULD THEY?
The El Faro was at the cutting edge of cargo-ship design and technology — that is, when it was built in 1975. Then named the Puerto Rico (and later the Northern Lights), it was among the first of the class of ships known as Ro/Ro vessels because they’re designed to allow cargo vehicles to be driven directly onto the ship, rolled on and rolled off.
But that was four decades ago. Ships, like cars and airplanes, wear out over time. And although their technology can be updated, it’s more difficult to patch up the accumulated stress and fatigue suffered by their hulls.
“I was surprised at the age of the vessel,” said Max Hardberger, a maritime lawyer and former freighter captain. “At 40, that’s twice its [expected] service life. There are not many [industry safety-standard monitors] that will approve a vessel of that age.”
One thing that may have kept the El Faro from the scrapyard was a controversial law regulating the trade route it served, between Jacksonville and Puerto Rico. The 95-year-old American law mandates that all seagoing trade between U.S. ports must be served by American-built ships.
But there aren’t so many of those these days. High U.S. labor costs have moved the industry elsewhere. “All the ships are being made in China,” said Hardberger, a sharp critic of the law. “China is pumping them out. The quality is getting better and better and the U.S. just can’t compete.... So older [American] ships have to continue sailing.”
One area in which the El Faro clearly showed its age was in its lifeboats. Modern lifeboats are giant, totally enclosed orange pods that bristle with navigation equipment and are often said to be “unsinkable.”
The El Faro, though, was still using the old-style open boats that must be lowered into the water with a crane. They’re more dangerous to launch, often smashing to pieces against the side of the ship, and, if they make it safely into the water, more vulnerable to high seas and stormy weather.
Lauren Oram, a veteran mariner who spent two and a half years on the El Faro, mordantly joked to a reporter that the ship’s lifeboats really belonged on the S.S. Minnow, the fictional shipwrecked tour boat of Gilligan’s Island. Joseph Brady, who spent five years at sea as a second engineer, made an even less felicitous allusion.
“It didn't go well for the Titanic,” Brady said, “and the technology for that particular lifeboat isn’t that much different than what was on the Titanic.”
TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, the El Faro’s owner, said the ship’s lifeboats were made of nearly unsinkable fiberglass (though the only one recovered was so battered it looked like it had been chewed.) The company also dismissed accusations made to reporters by three former crew members who criticized the ship’s seaworthiness and emergency procedures this week, citing leaky rooms, equipment failures and poor safety practices, one even referring to the ship as “a rust-bucket” that “needed a death certificate.”
The El Faro, the company noted, regularly passed inspections by the U.S. Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping, including several in February and March.
And other veteran sailors noted that even the most sophisticated modern technology is sometimes not enough to overcome a sea maddened by demon weather.
“There's a Murphy's Law when it comes to the mariner,” said Michael Hopkins, 68, a maritime industry consultant and former sailor who graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. “When the chips are down, the things that you didn't expect might happen, all suddenly happen at the same time. You're out there in the storm. It intensifies, and then your engine quits. Those are the unforeseen events.” He recalled the words of one of his old captains: “You're just one fuse away from Columbus. We rely on all this sophisticated equipment. We've got all these people reading radar and plotting the GPS. And you're just one fuse away from everything going down.”
RIDERS ON THE STORM
Early on the morning of Oct. 1, 34-year-old Danielle Randolph, a veteran sailor with years on the Jacksonville-Puerto Rico route, emailed her mother from the El Faro, a message that seems laden with barely concealed foreboding:
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 Category 3. Last we checked, winds are super bad and seas are not great — love to everyone.
“The saddest thing is that if a 20-year-old cadet is concerned about the storm, what the hell is going on?” said Capt. John Nicoll, 62, who lives in New Hampshire and traces his lineage back through several generations of sailors. “I'm not going to second guess. That's not fair. But I have a lot of questions.”
He’s not the only one. Many maritime veterans wonder how the El Faro found itself helpless in the path of a hurricane despite plenty of warning about what lay ahead.
The El Faro left Jacksonville on its three-day, 1,200-mile voyage on Sept. 29. In command was Mark Davidson, 53, a Maine native who started out as a teenage deckhand in the 1980s and worked his way up to become a captain at an extraordinarily young age. He mostly gets high marks from those who worked with him.
“He always paid attention to detail. He was a meticulous sailor, “ said Nick Mavodones Jr., a Portland, Maine, city councilman who was a childhood friend of Davidson’s and worked with him several years at Casco Bay lines. “He was prudent and in our line of work that is very important.”
But Davidson would have had to couple that prudence with the demands of his job. The Jacksonville-to-Puerto-Rico route is both lucrative and brutally competitive. By some estimates, 95 percent of the goods sold in Puerto Rico arrive by sea. Food, water, televisions, computers, cars, trucks are shipped every day along the many routes that crisscross the water.
Their delivery is governed by the principles of what businessman call just-in-time inventory strategy — trucks whisk goods away the moment they arrive at the docks, to avoid costly storage or spoilage. A delay of even a few hours sends expensive ripples of dysfunction through the whole system.
“Oh, God, that’s a time-driven market,” one major Port Everglades shipper told the Herald. “The Puerto Rican trade [route] is so competitive. Timing is a lot of it.”
Three major shipping companies dominate the route, which is such a dogfight that tactics by the carriers just a few years ago slipped over the legal line. Saltchuk Resources, the privately owned shipping conglomerate that in turn owns TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, was one of three shippers whose companies at the time were criminally charged with price-fixing and forced to collectively pay $46.2 million in fines between 2011-12. Six executives went to prison.
Captains, not corporate suits, make the decision about whether a ship sails in shaky weather, a rule that sailors agree is closely observed. Even so, a captain would have to be a blockhead not to understand that his record for on-time deliveries is closely scrutinized when it comes time to consider his continued employment.
“There's always a guy right behind you ready to do your job,” said Nicoll. “That’s [a captain’s] fear. He's got a mortgage, he's got two BMWs in the garage. He's got a kid in prep school and another kid at a university.”
And even if shipping lines respect a captain’s judgment, its customers may not. When you arrive late to port, “you've got some salesman in Topeka who is upset because you didn't get the goods there on time. I say f--- ’em,” said Nicoll. “Whether you're two hours late, or two days late, they are not going to remember it. They're going to remember when you've brought people back injured.”
When Davidson pulled his ship out of Jacksonville, Joaquin wasn’t a hurricane, just a tropical storm, and cargo ships routinely sail through those. But the El Faro had almost a full day of worsening warnings from the National Hurricane Center to alter course and avoid the storm.
Advisories from the National Hurricane Center repeatedly cautioned that the tropical storm would strengthen as it drifted toward the Central Bahamas — but at a pace that, at least initially, left a small window for a captain and crew willing to endure what promised to be a rough passage.
By 11 a.m. on Sept. 30, when the El Faro was still some 200 miles north of the Bahamas, Joaquin had already become an 80-mph hurricane. By 5 p.m., as the cargo ship passed east of Great Abaco at the northern end of the chain, Joaquin's winds had hit 85 mph. Forecasters also predicted additional strengthening, with Joaquin likely to grow into a major hurricane by Oct. 2.
The El Faro's small window quickly slammed shut. By 8 p.m., the winds had whipped up to 105 mph. Three hours later, the hurricane center declared Joaquin a major hurricane, Category 3 with 115 mph winds. Its projected track also put it directly in El Faro's path. At that point, Marinetraffic.com tracking data shows the big ship was off Governor's Harbour in Eleuthera — still 200-plus miles north of Crooked Island and outside the core of Joaquin's worst winds.
But there would be no turning around. The ship kept pounding south-southeast at a brisk 19 knots early into the morning of Oct. 1. By 5 a.m., not long after the tracking data to Marinetraffic.com stopped with the El Faro off Cat Island, Joaquin was at 120 mph. Conditions only got worse. At 2 p.m., Joaquin was a Cat 4 — a 130 mph maelstrom.
By that time, nobody had heard from the El Faro for nearly five hours. Its last known message was a distress signal saying it had lost propulsion, was taking on water and was listing 15 degrees, but that the situation was still “manageable.” Tragically, it wasn’t.
Several long-time ship captains, though they all stressed that it’s impossible to know exactly what the conditions aboard the El Faro were or what Davidson was thinking, believe he made a serious error on the second day of his voyage, when he learned the storm had reached hurricane levels.
“Once you've gone through one of those, you don't ever want to go through them again,” said Bernie Marciniak, 67, a retired captain. “They needed to turn away. You take what's known as the ‘Hole in the Wall’ between the Florida coast and the open sea.”
The Hole in the Wall is the name of a lighthouse built by the British in 1836 at the southern tip of Great Abaco. It marks the entrance to the Northeast Providence Channel, a safe deep water passage through the islands that could have taken the El Faro toward more protected waters or along the Florida coast.
When the El Faro steamed past the Hole in the Wall on Sept. 30, it found itself between the shallow bank of the Bahamas and a hurricane, with little room to maneuver.
“They didn't assess the risk correctly — obviously they didn't because they are not here today,” Marciniak said. “The storm was more than they expected.”
Even then, the El Faro still had a risky chance to slip past the hurricane. The ship had speed on its side — most hurricanes travel only about 12 knots an hour, and the El Faro could go much faster than that — and there are established marine tactics for trying to slip past a hurricane — most notably, staying to its left side, where winds are less powerful and the storm is less organized.
But all that ended when the ship lost power, and with it the ability to steer. The ship would drift until its side, rather than the bow, faced into the waves. Their force would start breaking loose the cargo — 391 shipping containers topside and 293 vehicles below — turning the ship into a killing field of giant hurtling objects. Meanwhile, the 15-degree list would complicate efforts to make whatever repairs were necessary to restart the power.
“Fifteen degrees may not sound like much to you,” said Kelly, the survivor of the Marine Electric disaster. “But give it a try — lean over 15 degrees and see how easy it is to type. Our ship had a 5-degree list, and we knew we were in bad, bad trouble.”
The list, in fact, was probably the ultimate cause of the El Faro’s apparently sudden demise. A gust of wind or a heavy wave can turn a list from 15 degrees to 50, just for a moment — but sometimes, a ship can’t right itself and simply flips all the way over. That’s especially likely if heavy cargo is sliding around, playing havoc with the ship’s center of gravity.
“When it rolls, it rolls,” said former captain Hardberger, who once watched a ship vanish in six seconds after rolling sideways.
“When they lost that propulsion, they were at the mercy of the wind and sea,” said Nicoll. “In a very short time, they’re all dead.”
AT THE END
No matter how much they love the sea, sailors never forget that, given a chance, it will kill them without warning or remorse.
“It’s not a safe place,” said Brady, the former second engineer. “You’re in a steel box in the middle of the ocean. Steel sinks.”
Even so, the crew of the El Faro was probably shocked by the dawning realization that their ship was letting them down.
“You play what-if games with yourself all the time,” said Kelly, the survivor of the Marine Electric. “But the ship is only one aspect of the potential problems at sea. You think about health problems, what you’ll do if people get injured or sick. You think about fires. You think about leaking steam in the engine room. The ship itself, as a whole, you think is infallible. It’s a rude awakening when it turns to s--- fast.”
Everybody who has ever served at sea says that crews are almost inevitably at their finest in a ship-threatening crisis. “As soon as the going gets tough, a crew can become a unit very quickly,” said Rycraft, tears quietly coursing down her cheeks as she thought about it.
If a ship sinks from taking on water or even by breaking apart, there’s almost always enough time to send out mayday alerts, activate emergency beacons, and start the launch of lifeboats. There’s no evidence any of that happened on the El Faro; no signals were received or lifesaving gear spotted. The remains of one crewman were spotted in the Gumby-like like survival gear, but that could have been donned comparatively early in the crisis.
“You send out a Mayday, and with modern electronics, it’s very efficient,” said Hardberger. “It’s one button, one big red button, and it sends a radio and satellite signal that you’re in trouble. They also have search-and-rescue transmitters on all lifeboats and life rafts.... Normally when something bad happens, there’s going to be a lot of signals going out from the vessel even before the crew leaves.”
Whatever warning the sailors got, they all knew what to do. Their assigned tasks and stations in all kinds of emergency situations were posted on the bridge, as well as written on personalized cards on their bunks. They undoubtedly carried them out as best they could.
In 1983, when the Marine Electric obviously had only a few more minutes to survive before rising water took it down, Kelly, the third officer, ordered a sailor to go five decks below to retrieve a tool necessary to prepare the lifeboats. “That is is the bravest man I’ve ever met,” Kelly remembers. “He just turned around and did it, knowing he might be trapped below.”
The rest of the crew did its job, too, quietly and efficiently, right up until the moment a 40-foot wave capsized the ship. “And when that happened,” remembered Kelly, “here I am, a 31-year-old tough guy, I stepped up to a railing on the bridge, and I let loose a primal screech for my mother.”
The name of the ship that sank in 1983, the Marine Electric, was incorrect in earlier versions of this report.