NTSB: El Faro sailed after hurricane warning

A lifeboat aboard the El Faro’s sister ship, the El Yunque, is similar to those used on the El Faro. Coast Guard searchers found one of the El Faro’s destroyed lifeboats during a six-day search.
A lifeboat aboard the El Faro’s sister ship, the El Yunque, is similar to those used on the El Faro. Coast Guard searchers found one of the El Faro’s destroyed lifeboats during a six-day search. National Transportation Safety Board

El Faro, an aging ship with two boilers in need of servicing, set sail about three hours after the National Hurricane Center warned that Tropical Storm Joaquin would likely strengthen to a hurricane within a day, National Transportation Safety Board investigators reported Tuesday.

The first detailed findings in the NTSB’s ongoing investigation of the ship’s Oct. 1 sinking appear to contradict the account provided by the ship’s owner days after the ship disappeared near Crooked Island in the Bahamas with a crew of 33. TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico had said the ship had departed on a course into what was expected to be only a tropical storm.

The report also provided the fullest picture yet of the ship’s final voyage, revealing that the ship had suffered some sort of breach allowing sea water to enter a hold and that one of El Faro’s two boilers was shut down for inspection about two weeks before the ship sank 20 miles from the eye of a Category 3 hurricane.

According to the report, El Faro set sail at 8:15 p.m. Sept. 29, after forecasters warned that Joaquin would likely intensify. At 1:12 p.m. the next day, Capt. Michael Davidson, 53, emailed company officials that he intended to dodge Joaquin by plotting a course that would take the ship about 65 miles south of its center.

At that point, Joaquin was already a Category 1 hurricane, hovering over record-warm waters and threatening to become a dangerous major storm.

“It is expected that additional intensification could occur through 72 hours,” forecasters had warned. “Based on this, the intensity forecast calls for Joaquin to peak as a major hurricane in about 72 hours, and it is possible it could be stronger than currently forecast.”

By 2 a.m., less than 30 hours after El Faro set sail, the storm had grown to a potent Category 3 hurricane, with hurricane force winds extending 35 miles.

In response to questions from the Herald, TOTE spokeswoman Moira Whalen referred questions to the NTSB.

“Out of respect for our seafarers and for every seafarer here and around the world, it is critical that we understand what contributed to this accident. And to this end, we will not jeopardize the investigation by speculating on the events surrounding the sinking of the El Faro,” she wrote in an email.

How much the captain and TOTE officials knew about the fierce storm both before El Faro departed Jacksonville and while it was in route will be a focus of the investigation, said NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson.

“We do know before El Faro left the Port of Jacksonville, the NHC had advised that the storm was predicted to strengthen a hurricane,” he said.

At 40 years old, the 790-foot El Faro was already twice the retirement age of most similar cargo ships, operating on a brutally competitive express route between Jacksonville and Puerto Rico that took the ship back and forth weekly on three-day journeys. In September, before its last, doomed voyage, El Faro made four round-trip sailings, according to TOTE’s online schedule.

A little over two weeks before El Faro sank, one of the ship’s two boilers was shut down during a trip from San Juan to Jacksonville so it could be inspected by a company contracted by TOTE, investigators said. After the inspection, the company recommended service to both boilers while the ship was at port for a scheduled dry dock service on Nov. 6. The report did not specify what the concerns were with the boiler.

But in the meantime, the boiler was fired back up so the ship could return to service.

The first sign of trouble came at 7 a.m. Oct. 1, when Davidson contacted the company’s call center to report an emergency, investigators said. In a recorded call, Davidson said the ship’s hull had a breach, a scuttle — a hatch or opening — had blown open and water had entered one of the ship’s holds. The ship had lost propulsion and engineers could not restart it, he said.

The NTSB said it was not clear whether Davidson was reporting two problems — a hole in the hull and a blown scuttle — or just a single blown scuttle.

The Coast Guard had previously reported that the captain also said the ship was listing at 15 degrees, an angle that could prove fatal for a powerless ship.

“If the voyage data recorder is recovered, we may be able to learn more about the circumstances that the captain was dealing with,” Knudson said in an email.

A call center operator then connected the captain to an onshore company contact who told investigators Davidson repeated the same information and reported waves at between 10 and 12 feet, far less than the 30 feet predicted by the hurricane center. Davidson, the contact previously said, sounded calm.

But within moments, the Coast Guard received three emergency alerts from the ship. They included a call from the Ship’s Security Alert System, a security measure added in 2002 to combat piracy; an Inmarsat-C Alert, the ship’s SOS button pre-programed to communicate the ship’s identity, time of alert, course and speed; and a distress call from the ship’s Emergency Position Indicating Radio (EPIRB).

EPIRB’s are typically triggered when they make contact with water. The last alert, at 7:17 a.m., put the ship 20 miles from Joaquin’s eye. By then, the storm had grown to a fierce Category 3 storm, with 120 mph sustained winds.

TOTE was also in the process of refitting El Faro for a move to the West Coast, where it would take up a new route between Washington State and Alaska. As part of the work, a team of five Polish sailors, including welders and machinists, had been working on the ship during trips, investigators said.

Investigators also interviewed two harbor pilots who guided El Faro through the Jacksonville port when it departed. Both reported the ship handled like any other vessel of its size and type.

El Faro also passed its annual Coast Guard inspection in March, investigators noted. The American Bureau of Shipping, an industry safety group, also inspected the ship in February. Some problems were discovered and corrected, investigators said, but none related to the ship’s propulsion. The ship also passed a June safety inspection by the group.

After its final Mayday call, the Coast Guard launched an intense search, deploying heavy-duty C-130 cargo planes flying into the very conditions that had helped sink the El Faro. Over six days, searchers covered nearly 228,000 square miles, but only found fragments of the massive ship packed with 391 containers above deck and 294 below. Among the items: a demolished 43-seat life boat, a life ring and a 225-square mile debris field filled with floating Styrofoam and wood. A single body was found, zipped into a “survival suit,” designed to help sailors thrown into the sea float and avoid hypothermia. At the time the corpse was found, conditions were too rough for rescuers to pull it from the water.

NTSB investigators hope to locate the ship’s wreckage on the ocean floor and recover its voyage data recorder, which could provide more clues about what went wrong. A Navy tug outfitted with special sensors to find the ship, which set sail from Virginia Monday, is expected to arrive in the El Faro’s last known position on Saturday. Investigators said the search is expected to last two weeks.

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