Flashback in maritime history – EL FARO sinking and the loss of 33 people on 1 October 2015

(http://www.MaritimeCyprus.comEL FARO was a United States-flagged, combination roll-on/roll-off and lift-on/lift-off cargo ship crewed by U.S. merchant mariners. She was lost at sea with all hands on October 1, 2015, after losing propulsion near the eyewall of Hurricane Joaquin.

El Faro departed Jacksonville, Florida, bound for Puerto Rico at 8:10 pm EST on September 29, 2015, when then-Tropical Storm Joaquin was several hundred miles to the east. Two days later, after Joaquin had become a Category 3 hurricane, the vessel likely encountered swells of 20 to 40 ft (6 to 12 m) and winds over 80 kn (150 km/h; 92 mph) as it sailed near the storm’s eye. Around 7:30 a.m. on October 1, the ship had taken on water and was listing 15 degrees. The last report from the captain, however, indicated that the crew had contained the flooding. Shortly thereafter, El Faro ceased all communications with shore.

On October 2, the 40-year-old ship was declared missing, and an extensive search operation was launched by the United States Coast Guard, with help from the Air Force, Air National Guard, and Navy. They recovered debris and a damaged lifeboat, and spotted (but could not recover) an unidentifiable body. El Faro was declared sunk on October 5. The search was called off at sunset on October 7, by which time more than 183,000 sq nmi had been covered by aircraft and ships. The Navy sent the USNS Apache to conduct an underwater search for El Faro on October 19, 2015. The Apache identified a vessel on October 31 “consistent with [the El Faro] cargo ship…in an upright position and in one piece.” The next day, November 1, the Navy announced a submersible had returned images that identified the wreck as the El Faro.

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a news release which identified various leading causal factors including:

  1. the captain’s navigation decisions;
  2. inaccurate weather information;
  3. poor bridge team management;
  4. lack of oversight by the owner;
  5. inadequate damage control plans; and
  6. carriage of obsolete open lifeboats.

The deadliest shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than 30 years was caused by a captain’s failure to avoid sailing into a hurricane despite numerous opportunities to route a course away from hazardous weather, the National Transportation Safety Board announced during a public meeting.

The 790-foot, cargo vessel, S.S. El Faro, en route from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, sank Oct. 1, 2015, in the Atlantic Ocean during Hurricane Joaquin, taking the lives of all 33 aboard.

“We may never understand why the captain failed to heed his crew’s concerns about sailing into the path of a hurricane, or why he refused to chart a safer course away from such dangerous weather,” said NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt.  “But we know all too well the devastating consequences of those decisions.”

NTSB investigators worked closely with the U.S. military and federal- and private-sector partners to locate the wreckage, photo- and video-document the ship and related debris field, and recover the El Faro’s voyage data recorder from more than 15,000 feet under the surface of the sea.

El Faro at sea viewed from stern (Photo by William Hoey)

El Faro at sea viewed from stern (Photo by William Hoey)

The ship departed Florida Sept. 29, 2015, and had a range of navigation options that would have allowed it to steer clear of the storm that later became a Category 4 hurricane.  The captain, consulting outdated weather forecasts and ignoring the suggestions of his bridge officers to take the ship farther south and away from the storm, ordered a course that intersected with the path of a hurricane that pounded the ship with 35-foot seas and 100 mph winds.

Color-enhanced satellite imagery of Hurricane Joaquin taken close to the accident time. El Faro’s track is identified by the green line.

As the ship sailed into the outer bands of the storm, about five hours prior to the sinking, its speed decreased and it began to list to starboard due to severe wind and seas.  In the last few hours of the voyage, the crew struggled to deal with a cascading series of events, any one of which could have endangered the ship on its own.

Seawater entered the ship through cargo loading and other openings on a partially enclosed deck in the ship’s hull, pooled on the starboard side and poured through an open hatch into a cargo hold.  The hold began to fill with seawater, and automobiles in the hold broke free of lashings and likely ruptured a fire main pipe that could have allowed thousands of gallons of seawater per minute into the ship – faster than could be removed by bilge pumps.

About 90 minutes before the sinking the listing ship lost its propulsion and was unable to maneuver, leaving it at the mercy of the sea.  Although the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship when the sinking was imminent, the crew’s chances of survival were significantly reduced because El Faro was equipped with life rafts and open uncovered lifeboats, which met requirements but were ineffective in hurricane conditions.

The NTSB also said that the poor oversight and inadequate safety management system of the ship’s operator, TOTE, contributed to the sinking.

“Although El Faro and its crew should never have found themselves in such treacherous weather, that ship was not destined to sink,” said Sumwalt.  “If the crew had more information about the status of the hatches, how to best manage the flooding situation, and the ship’s vulnerabilities when in a sustained list, the accident might have been prevented.”

As a result of the 26-month long investigation, the NTSB made 29 recommendations to the U.S. Coast Guard, two to the Federal Communications Commission, one to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, nine to the International Association of Classification Societies, one to the American Bureau of Shipping, one to Furuno Electric Company and 10 to TOTE Services.

The complete accident report can be downloaded here.  The executive summary, including the findings, probable cause and safety recommendations is available at https://go.usa.gov/xnRAn.

Additional information related to this investigation, including news releases, photographs, videos, and a link to the accident docket containing more than 30,000 pages of factual material, is available on the El Faro accident investigation page at http://go.usa.gov/xnRTW.

Lastly, The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a 16-page illustrated digest summarizing the critical events and decisions that led to the unfortunate event. The digest synopsizes the more than 60 recommendations issued throughout the NTSB’s investigation of the sinking. The infographics and summary make for an easy-to-read digest, compared with the thousands of pages that comprise the NTSB’s final report and associated investigative documents, while still imparting potentially lifesaving information to our stakeholders. Click on below image to download the illustrated digest.

 

 

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