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Despite crew questions, El Faro captain steered toward hurricane, transcript shows

A closeup of the El Faro insignia, taken from video provided by the National Transportation and Safety Board.
A closeup of the El Faro insignia, taken from video provided by the National Transportation and Safety Board.

Michael Davidson, captain of the Puerto Rican-bound cargo ship El Faro, was puzzling over a message from shore that the bad weather up ahead had grown overnight from just a mess of windy squalls into a bonafide tropical storm strong enough to have a name.

“Joe-waa-kin,” the captain said, sounding out the unfamiliar name. Then he spelled it aloud for his first mate, Steven Shultz: J-O-A-Q-U-I-N.

“That’s some name,” replied Shultz. “Should I be scared?”

The captain’s answer went unrecorded, but history tells us, oh, yes. The next morning, Joaquin — by now grown into a viciously howling Category 4 hurricane — would sink the El Faro, taking its 33-member crew to the bottom of the sea off the out islands of the Bahamas on Oct. 1, 2015.

As the ship cracked apart and the crew scurried for lifeboats, Davidson had a final exchange with another crewman. “I’m a goner,” yelled the sailor. “No you’re not,” Davidson yelled back. “It’s time to come this way.” The rest was unintelligible yelling, and then a profound silence.

 

Those conversations were contained in a 510-page transcript of conversations taped aboard the El Faro’s bridge released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board. They were recovered from the ship’s data recorder, similar to the so-called black boxes carried aboard airplanes.

In addition to the transcript, the federal agency released thousands of other pages of interviews, data and “factual reports” on weather, engineering and other factors that could have contributed to the tragedy. It could be months or more before the NTSB issues a final report on what investigators believe went wrong.

“We hope our ongoing investigation will result in answers that prevent similar accidents,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart, at a news conference in Washington, D.C.

Even without definitive conclusions, the NTSB’s Tuesday reports suggested directions the investigation is taking. Among the highlights:

▪ The National Hurricane Center’s forecast for Hurricane Joaquin was off in both track and intensity in the critical days before the disaster, though they improved in the day and hours before the ship reached storm’s strongest bands. Forecasters told NTSB investigators that Joaquin ranked as “one of the most challenging storms for forecasting track.”

The error for the 48-hour forecast, for example, was more than double the average over the past five years — Joaquin winding up 180 miles away from its projected path. From three to five days out, most computer models predicted the storm would button-hook to the north, but the hurricane took an “atypical southwestward motion toward the Bahamas” and toward the ship’s route. The storm also went through an unexpected period of rapid intensification, pushing its wind speeds above 100 mph as the ship neared.

▪ Investigators question whether the ship’s captain had the most up-to-date forecasts, with one of the systems on the bridge providing data that was six hours old. The ship’s owner, Jacksonville-based TOTE Marine, however, told investigators that the ship had redundant forecasting services that would have provided multiple real-time forecasts.

▪ A month before the fatal final voyage, an inspector had recommended a list of repairs and overhauls needed for one of the ship’s two boilers. The ship, which lost power during the storm for yet-to-be-determined reasons, was scheduled to be in dry-dock the next month for maintenance and repairs.

The transcript of conversations also contains intriguing details about how the El Faro wound up sailing right into the teeth of the hurricane, rather than veering away from it.

In one conversation, the captain indicates he was considering alternative routes that would take the El Faro through, rather than around, the Bahamas, toward the U.S. coast line. Those paths would have used the islands as breakwaters to buffer the ship from the growing seas.

U.S. Coast Guard Captain Mark Fedor addresses journalists about the search for survivors of El Faro, the cargo ship that disappeared during Hurricane Joaquin. The Coast Guard now believes the ship has sunk, but the search continues for survivors.

Ultimately, he believed he could outrace the hurricane to the south, a decision apparently bolstered by the El Faro’s computerized navigation aide, the Bon Voyage System (BVS). As the hurricane approached, crew members were increasingly skeptical that Davidson had made the right call. And a message from a sister ship — the El Yunque, returning north from Puerto Rico — did nothing to reassure them.

“The captain sayin’ you are goin’ the wrong way,” said the El Yunque radio operator.

“We’re really lovin’ that BVS program now,” replied Shultz sarcastically.

At least twice, other officers on the El Faro suggested to Davidson that he steer away from the storm. At about 11:30 p.m. on Sept. 30, third mate Jeremie Riehm called Davidson from the bridge to let him know new storm data showed the El Faro would be a mere 22 miles from the center of Hurricane Joaquin in five hours. When the captain declined to change routes, a crewman warned Riehm: “Nantucket sleigh ride,” an old sailor’s expression for the wild ride aboard a boat in the moments after it has harpooned a whale.

Two hours later, second mate Danielle Randolph asked to change course again. Davidson told her to “run it,” she said to other crewmen, adding with a laugh: “Hooold on to your ass.”

Earlier, Davidson seemingly had been contemplating a course change himself. As early as 2 p.m. he told Randolph he had sent a message to company headquarters that he might turn the ship toward the U.S. coast. “I just said, ‘Hey, you know — I would like to take this goin’ northbound. I’ll wait for your reply.’ I don’t think they’ll say no.”

But by 4:15 p.m, Davidson was no longer interested in heading north: “No, no, no. We’re not gonna turn around — we’re not gonna turn around.” And when crew members asked if he’d gotten any word back from headquarters, Davidson’s reply was ambiguous. “No,” he said, without clarifying whether he meant no he hadn’t heard back, or he’d heard and the answer was no. Then he added: “Because it’s 160 more miles. That’s more fuel.”

Whatever his reasoning, when the ship’s end came, it came fast. Just two and a half hours after Davidson’s final refusal to change course, the El Faro’s oil levels developed problems, a leak in the hold spilled so much water into the cargo area that the cars inside bobbed around like apples (“They’re subs!” cracked the chief mate), and the ship developed a dangerous 15-degree list.

By 6:13 a.m. the El Faro lost all propulsion. Yet, outwardly at least, Davidson remained confident. Though the ship was “in dire straits right now,” he said half an hour later, “everybody’s safe right now, we’re not gonna abandon ship. We’re gonna stay with the ship.” But in a final phone call to company headquarters, Davidson admitted that staying in the ship was a good idea only because the alternative was worse: “The weather is ferocious out here.”

A few minutes later, as water flooded in and alarm bells sounded in the background, Davidson shouted, “Tell ’em we’re goin’ in. Everybody! Get off! Get off the ship. Stay together.” And though it had been spoken aloud nearly 24 hours earlier, a conversation on the bridge between Riehm and Randolph about how the first Spanish sailors, hundreds of years ago, must have tried to describe hurricanes seemed to linger presciently in the air.

“The survivors told ’em about it in Spain [and the landlubbers are] ‘Yeah — yeah — sure — sure. we know what storms are,’ ” recounted Riehm. “No, you don’t know what this storm’s like or even what this is.”

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