When the cargo ship El Faro left Jacksonville for its regular run to Puerto Rico, its owners considered a tropical storm named Joaquin drifting near the Bahamas nothing that the rugged 790-foot vessel and its experienced 33-member crew couldn’t handle.
The forecast changed as soon as the massive ship set sail but its course — the shortest, straightest shot across the Atlantic to offload containers — never did.
In the face of increasingly ominous warnings about Hurricane Joaquin from the National Hurricane Center, tracking data shows that the El Faro steered almost directly into the strengthening eye of a major hurricane, a decision that appears to have contributed to one of the worst cargo-ship accidents off the U.S. coast in decades.
On Monday, the U.S Coast Guard confirmed the worst fears of families awaiting word in the ship’s homeport of Jacksonville: The massive ship, missing since a last communication Thursday, sank. Its hull spewed so much Styrofoam packing debris from within its bowels that a Coast Guard officer said the waters off the Bahamas resembled a golf course driving range dotted with balls.
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One corpse was found Sunday night, as well as an empty and badly damaged 43-seat lifeboat. There were unidentifiable human remains inside a “survival suit,” which helps crew members float and avoid hypothermia.
Despite the Coast Guard’s grim discoveries, the search will continue for possible survivors. The questions about what happened to the ship have only begun.
While much remained unclear, some commercial shipping experts said federal investigators, who will produce the final report on the El Faro’s fate, will almost certainly focus on the call to risk navigating through a hurricane rather than the captain or company deciding to take the safer, but longer route down along the more protected Florida coast.
“He was going to cross the storm at some point. In my opinion, it makes no sense to do that. When you're a ship, you want to avoid the storm at all costs,” said Capt. Sam Stephenson, who teaches emergency ship handling at Fort Lauderdale's Resolve Maritime Academy.
“A lot of questions will be about what the company and the captain knew and when, and what action was taken,” Basil Karatzas, of Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co., told the Wall Street Journal.
The 790-foot ship departed from Jacksonville on Tuesday when Joaquin was still a tropical storm. The American-flagged El Faro, which means The Lighthouse in Spanish, had a crew of 33 — 28 Americans and 5 from Poland. The captain, Michael Davidson of Maine, was a veteran. The ship was due to arrive in San Juan on Friday.
In a statement on its website, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, which owns the ship, said that when the crew set sail on Tuesday, the weather called for a tropical storm, not a hurricane.
“Our crew are trained to deal with unfolding weather situations and are best prepared and equipped to respond to emerging situations while at sea,” the company wrote. “TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico authorized the sailing knowing that the crew are more than equipped to handle situations such as changing weather.”
But by 11 p.m. that night, with the El Faro still not far from Jacksonville, forecasters warned that Joaquin had already hit 70 mph and would become a hurricane by the next morning. Forecasters also noted that Bahamian waters were warm and wind shear was mild, conditions that can fuel intensification. Some computer models saw Joaquin growing fiercer fast. "It should be noted, that the UKMET, GFS, and ECMWF models all significantly deepen Joaquin during the next few days, and the NHC forecast could be somewhat conservative."
That's exactly what happened. By 8 a.m. Wednesday, with the ship still hours from the northern Bahamas according to data from Marinetraffic.com, the NHC declared Joaquin a hurricane with 75 mph winds. Forecasters also cautioned that additional strengthening was expected. Over the next 12 hours, Joaquin exploded, wind speed leaping with every NHC advisory. By 11 p.m. Wednesday, it was a Category 3 storm with 115 mph winds.
At least one crew member expressed concern. “Not sure if you’ve been following the weather at all,” crew member Danielle Randolph wrote in an e-mail to her mother, according to the Washington Post, “but there is a hurricane out here and we are heading straight into it.”
By 7:30 a.m. Thursday — about when the ship would have been hitting the hurricane wind field of a storm on the cusp of Cat 4 — the El Faro reported losing power and taking on water. According to TOTE, the company that owns the ship, the crew reported successfully pumping the water out. The weather conditions kept the ship leaning a “manageable” 15 degrees to the side, according to TOTE. That was the last communication from the ship.
At a Monday press conference, Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor said that would have left the ship, unable to make headway, at the mercy of 100-knot winds and waves estimated at 50-feet high. Hulls can crack when suspended between waves. Container ships, which can be top-heavy, also are prone to capsizing. Unless the hull is found, how the El Faro went down may always be a speculation.
It’s unclear if that will happen. The ship, packed with 391 containers above deck and 294 below, sank in an area where the Atlantic runs 15,000 feet deep.
The conditions of a major hurricane — where wind and waves can be blinding — also make the process of abandoning ship dangerous. But Coast Guard rescue teams haven’t given up hope of finding survivors. Fedor said a person could survive four to five days in the 80 degree water.
“These are trained mariners,” he said. “We’re not going to discount someone’s will to survive.”
Because El Faro is an American-flagged vessel, the investigation into the sinking will be led by the National Transportation Safety Board and aided by the Coast Guard. Fedor said the Coast Guard will likely launch an independent investigation as well.
U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also called for a congressional inquiry. She planned to meet with El Faro family members Monday afternoon.
TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico did not respond to calls for comment. But in a statement released Monday, President Tim Nolan expressed gratitude to the Coast Guard and dismay at the situation. “We continue to hold out hope for survivors,” he said. “Our prayers and thoughts go out to the family members and we will continue to do all we can to support them.”
But some commercial shipping experts question whether there was a push to try to cut it too close around a developing storm. The Marinetraffic.com data shows El Faro steaming along toward the Bahamas at 18 to near 20 knots — close to its maximum speed.
Giving Joaquin a wider berth and traveling south down the Florida coast might have added 200 miles, and anywhere between six and 10 hours of travel time, Stephenson said. "Prudence plays a large role in this situation."
Capt. Mark Rupert, who worked the Jacksonville-to-Puerto Rico route for over a decade on cargo ships, agreed the route nearer to Florida was the safest option. Trying to outrun the storm by heading east could lead a ship right into the system's nastier side.
Rupert and Stephenson said a loss of power would have led to cascading problems, breaking cargo free, worsening violent lurching in waves and adding to any list from taking on water.
“When you don't have propulsion, you can't do anything. You're at the mercy of the sea,” said Rupert, a veteran shipping captain who now works as a harbor pilot in Fort Lauderdale. “It's kind of terrifying to think of what the crew would have went through in their final minutes.”
Stephenson said the fact that the remains of a crew member were found in a survival suit also tells a story. “They knew the ship was going down.”
In the Bahamas, meanwhile, donations continued to pour as officials worked to assess the extent of the damage in its southern and central islands from Hurricane Joaquin. The government still has not confirmed any deaths from the storm. But Rev. Keith Cartwright of the Anglican Diocese of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands told the Miami Herald that according to Bahamian officials, a man died when the roof of his home on Long Island collapsed as a result of high winds
Downed utility poles and flooded runways continue to pose challenges, though Police Commissioner Ellison Greenslade and his team were able to land in Acklins and Crooked Islands Monday as they traveled to assess the situation.
"Please help the people at Colonel Hill Airport to get to Nassau before sunset. They need airlift. 46 persons and counting," Greenslade Twitter account read. Colonel Hill is in Crooked Island.
Prime Minister Perry Christie also continued his tour of the devastation and his appeal for assistance. He pledged that no resources would be spared in providing assistance in the Joaquin's aftermath but said the country cannot do it alone.
"We are going to need help," Christie told the government news station ZNS Sunday after his second visit to Long Island in 24 hours. "We made a commitment to go all out, to bring relief in the shortest possible time, to bring restoration in the shortest possible time. We have now spread our teams around the affected areas."
Miami Herald Staff Writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this story.
The El Faro by the numbers
- 33 crew members — 5 Polish and 28 American
- 790 feet long
- 22 knot top speed
- Build in 1974, updated in 1992 and 2006
- There were 391 containers above deck and 294 below
- Most recent annual inspection was March 5 and 6 by Coast Guard