SS El Faro
|Name:||Puerto Rico (1975–1991)Northern Lights (1991–2006)El Faro (2006–2015)|
|Operator:||Sea Star Line|
|Port of registry:||San Juan, Puerto Rico, United States|
|Route:||Jacksonville, Florida to San Juan, Puerto Rico|
|Builder:||Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Co.|
|Laid down:||April 11, 1974|
|Launched:||November 1, 1974|
|Completed:||January 16, 1975|
|Fate:||Sank in Hurricane Joaquin on October 1, 2015|
|General characteristics |
|Type:||Roll-on/roll-off cargo ship|
|Tonnage:||31,515 GT21,473 NT14,971 DWT|
|Length:||241 m (791 ft) (after lengthening)|
|Beam:||28.6 m (94 ft)|
|Draft:||12.8 m (42 ft)|
|Propulsion:||Single shaft, double reduction compound steam turbine (11,190 kW)|
|Speed:||22 knots (41 km/h; 25 mph)|
|Crew:||33 personnel (28 Americans and 5 Poles) on final voyage|
SS El Faro was a United States-flagged, combination roll-on/roll-off and lift-on/lift-off cargo ship crewed by U.S. merchant mariners. Built in 1975 by Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Co. as Puerto Rico, the vessel was renamed Northern Lights in 1991, and finally, El Faro in 2006. 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 (630,000 km2; 242,000 sq mi) 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.
- 1 Construction and earlier career
- 2 Sinking
- 3 Aftermath
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 Further reading
- 7 External links
Construction and earlier career
El Faro was built by the Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Corporation in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1975 as Puerto Rico. As operated by the Navieras de Puerto Rico Steamship Company, the Puerto Rico hauled cargo to and from the U.S. East Coast for 15 years. In 1991, it was purchased by Saltchuk Resources, the parent company of TOTE Maritime, and renamed Northern Lights. Two years later, it was lengthened by 90 feet (27 m) at Alabama Shipyard, Inc. Under Saltchuk, it frequently sailed between Tacoma, Washington, and Anchorage, Alaska.
In February 2003, just before the United States-led invasion of Iraq, the vessel was chartered by the United States' Military Sealift Command as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom; the vessel ferried Marines and supplies from San Diego, California, to Kuwait. On March 19, while in the Persian Gulf, the vessel came under fire from missiles. The explosions rocked the ship, but caused no damage or injuries. Through October 2005, near the end of Northern Lights' chartered service, the vessel made 25 voyages and 49 port calls. Collectively, 12,200 pieces of military equipment—weighing 81,000 short tons (73,000 t) in all—were transported by the ship. Robert Magee, then president of TOTE, and the crew of Northern Lights were praised by United States Air Force general Norton A. Schwartz: "You and your team of professionals showcased the US flag industry at its best." Following completion of its military services in 2006, the ship was transferred by TOTE to its subsidiary company Sea Star Lines and renamed El Faro. The vessel returned to its original route and served as a "lifeline" between the United States and Puerto Rico.
When it sank on October 1, 2015, the Merchant Vessel El Faro was scheduled to return to Tacoma to relieve another vessel.
On September 29, 2015, at 8:10 p.m., El Faro left Jacksonville, Florida for San Juan, Puerto Rico, carrying a cargo of 391 shipping containers, about 294 trailers and cars, and a crew of 33 people—28 Americans and 5 Poles. The ship's master, Captain Michael Davidson, charted a course that, according to TOTE Maritime, took the vessel a reasonably safe distance away from the hurricane. At the time of departure, Hurricane Joaquin was still a tropical storm, but meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center forecast that it would likely become a hurricane by the morning of October 1, on a southwest trajectory toward the Bahamas. The vessel's charted course took it within 175 nmi (320 km; 200 mi) of the storm, where seas in excess of 10 ft (3 m) were likely. TOTE could have vetoed the captain's sail plan into the area of a predicted hurricane, but chose not to and opted for the ship to continue. The company said there was no incentive for Davidson to maintain the ship's schedule, but that the schedule also appeared to be a safe one. At least one of the deck officers, second mate Danielle Randolph, voiced concern prior to sailing and wrote in an email to friends and family, "there is a hurricane out here and we are heading straight into it."
The vessel had "passed its annual Coast Guard inspection in March and another survey in June", and had also successfully completed the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) class and statutory surveys in February 2015. The NTSB confirmed on October 20, 2015, that El Faro had successfully completed the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) class and statutory surveys on February 13, 2015. They also found that safety drills were conducted on a weekly basis and that the ship met stability criteria when it left Jacksonville.
Former crew members of El Faro expressed surprise and shock that the vessel set sail with a major storm in its course. They said the vessel was "a rust bucket" that "[was not] supposed to be on the water." They also said that El Faro suffered from drainage issues and that leaking was common in the Galley (Kitchen) Compartment. They said that the ship was covered in rust and its decks filled with holes as recently as August.
Throughout September 30 into the morning of October 1, Joaquin continued to track southwest. 10 hours after departing, El Faro was steaming at full speed and deviating from its charted course. According to Klaus Luhta of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, Davidson continued to head directly into the storm. Joaquin became a hurricane by 8:00 a.m. on September 30, then rapidly intensified. By 11:00 pm, the storm had reached Category 3 intensity with maximum sustained winds of 100 kn (185 km/h; 115 mph). Around 7:30 a.m. on October 1, less than 30 hours after the ship had sailed from Jacksonville, the United States Coast Guard received a satellite notification that the vessel had lost propulsion, taken on water—though flooding was contained at the time of the message—and had a 15-degree list.
The Coast Guard also received a single ping from the ship's Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. Subsequent attempts by the Coast Guard to open communications with El Faro were unsuccessful.
Marine Traffic's last reported position of El Faro was  According to a different marine positioning database, relayed by Reuters, the final relayed position of El Faro was at 7:56 a.m., about 35 nmi (65 km; 40 mi) northeast of Crooked Island. This placed the vessel within the eyewall of Hurricane Joaquin, situated near at 8:00 a.m., where winds in excess of 80 kn (150 km/h; 92 mph) and waves of 20 to 30 ft (6 to 9 m) likely battered the ship.at 4:01 a.m., heading south-southeast at 19 kn (35 km/h; 22 mph).
Voyage Data Recorder audio
On 13 December 2016, the NTSB released a 500-page transcript of the conversations that occurred on the bridge in the ship's final 26 hours, as recorded by the Vessel's Voyage Data Recorder (VDR) and its six microphones.
The transcript described a quickly deteriorating situation.
At 5:43 am, the captain takes a phone call indicating suspected flooding in the no. 3 cargo hold and sends the chief mate to investigate. The crew then begin taking measures to try to assess and control the flooding.:415–416
At 6:13 am, the ship loses its steam propulsion plant.:439
At 6:54 am, the captain takes a phone call describing the situation onboard:
- "It’s miserable right now. We got all the uhh—all the wind on the starboard side here. Now a scuttle was left open or popped open or whatever so we got some flooding down in three hold—a significant amount. Umm, everybody’s safe right now, we’re not gonna abandon ship—we’re gonna stay with the ship. We are in dire straits right now. Okay, I’m gonna call the office and tell ’em [expletives]. Okay? Umm there’s no need to ring the general alarm yet—we’re not abandoning ship. The engineers are trying to get the plant back. So we’re working on it—okay?":467
At 7:06 am, the captain makes a phone call. He says:
- "I have a marine emergency and I would like to speak with a QI. We had a hull breach- a scuttle [hatch] blew open during the storm. We have water down in three hold. We have a heavy list. We've lost the main propulsion unit. The engineers can not get it goin'. Can I speak with a QI please?":475
- "We have uhh secured the source of water coming in to the vessel. uh, A scuttle was blown open... it's since been closed. However, uh, three hold's got a considerable amount of water in it. Uh, we have a very, very healthy port list. The engineers cannot get lube oil pressure on the plant, therefore we've got no main engine, and let me give you um a latitude and longitude. I just wanted to give you a heads up before I push that- push that button.":476
- "The crew is safe. Right now we're trying to save the ship now, but uh all available hands. We are forty-eight miles east of San Salvador. We are taking every measure to take the list off. By that I mean pump out that- pump out that hold the best we can but we are not gaining ground at this time.":477
- "Right now it's a little hard to tell because all the wind is... on that side too so we got a good wind heel goin'. But it's not getting any better.":478
- "[We're] gonna stay with the ship... no one's panicking, everybody's been made aware... Our safest bet is to stay with the ship during this particular time. The weather is ferocious out here and we're gonna stay with the ship... swell is out the northeast, a solid ten to twelve feet (over) spray, high winds, very poor visibility...":478
At 7:10 am, the captain tells someone on the phone that they have a 10- to 15-degree list, "but a lot of that's with the wind heel.":480 He lets the person know he will be making a distress call to the USCG, and then directs the second mate to activate the SSAS button/GMDSS alarm, and directs her to wake everybody up.:481–482
At 7:15 am, the chief mate returns to the bridge:
- Chief mate: "I think that the water level's rising, Captain."
- Captain: "(okay). Do you know where it's comin' from?"
- Chief Mate: "(at) first the Chief said something hit the fire main. Got it ruptured. Hard."
- Captain: "Um, there's no way to secure that?"
- Chief Mate: "We don't know if they still have any pressure on the fire main or not. Don't know where's sea – between the sea suction and the hull or what uh but anything I say is a guess.":483
At 7:17 am, the chief engineer informs the chief mate and the captain over the sound-powered phone that the bilge alarm is going off in "two alpha.":485 The captain asks the chief if he can pump out all of the cargo holds at the same time, and discusses the worsening list.:486 The chief mate informs the captain that the cars are floating in #3 cargo hold, and that the fire main is below the surface of the water, so he couldn't see the damage or if water was still coming in.:487–488
At 7:19 am, after further discussion with the chief mate, the captain calls the chief engineer again, asking, "Can you... isolate the fire main from down in the uh engine room?... On the engine room side the isolation valve [on the] suction [for the] fire pump... secure it, isolate it on your side so there's no free communication from the sea.":489–490
At 7:24 am, the captain, speaking with a crew member on the phone, says, "We still got reserve buoyancy and stability.":493
At 7:27 am, the captain instructs the second mate to ring the general alarm and wake up the crew.:493
At 7:29 am, the captain gives the order to abandon ship, and about a minute later can be heard on the bridge calling out, "Bow is down, bow is down.":499–500
At 7:31 am, the captain yells over the UHF radio for the chief mate to "Get into your rafts! Throw all your rafts into the water! Everybody get off! Get off the ship! Stay together!":501
From 7:32 am on, the captain is heard trying to help the panicked helmsman, an able seaman, get off the bridge, with alarms ringing throughout.:502 The captain repeatedly tells the helmsman not to panic: "work your way up here,":504 "you're okay, come on,":505 and "I'm not leavin' you, let's go!":507 The helmsman exclaims, "I need a ladder! A line!":506 and, "I need someone to help me!":507
At 7:39 am, the VDR recording ends with the captain and AB still on the bridge.:509
On October 1, Hurricane Hunters WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft of the U.S. Air Force Reserve 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron tried to locate El Faro without success. On October 2, a Coast Guard HC-130H Hercules aircraft from CGAS. Clearwater, Florida began a dedicated search for the ship. The USCGC Northland and a MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter from CGAS. Clearwater, Florida joined search efforts later that day. United States Coast Guard MH-65C Dolphin Helicopters from CGAS. Miami, Florida and CGAS. Borinquen, Puerto Rico along with HC-144A Ocean Sentry Fixed Wing Patrol Aircraft from Miami were also present. Aircraft on October 3 flew in violent hurricane conditions, characterized by winds in excess of 100 kn (185 km/h; 115 mph) at an altitude of 1,000 ft (300 m), waves up to 40 ft (12 m), and visibility less than 1 nmi (1.9 km; 1.2 mi). Despite the hazardous conditions, a helicopter crew recovered a life ring from the vessel on this day. Conditions markedly improved on October 4 as Joaquin moved northeast away from the Bahamas; winds averaged 15 kn (28 km/h; 17 mph) and visibility was unlimited. Taking advantage of the clear weather, the helicopter remained in flight for 11 hours, requiring refueling twice. A second HC-130, the USCGC Charles Sexton, and the USCGC Resolute were deployed that day. Northland and Resolute continued operations overnight with engineers using night vision goggles to take part in the search. The United States Navy provided P-8A Poseidon fixed wing aircraft from NAS. Jacksonville, Florida to assist on October 5; three Crowley Maritime tugboats also joined. Search operations were conducted at a near-continuous pace by this date.
On October 5, an unidentified body in a survival suit, presumed to be from El Faro, was found but was not recovered. According to the rescue diver, the body was unrecognizable, its head three times normal size, and was left to be retrieved later in the day. However, a failure in the positioning device SLDMB ultimately resulted in losing the body. Several other unopened suits were recovered. A deflated life raft and a heavily damaged lifeboat—one of two aboard El Faro, each capable of carrying 43 people and stocked with food and water for a few days—with no one aboard were also found. The vessel was declared lost at sea on this day, believed to have sunk in 15,000 ft (4,600 m) of water, and the search turned into a search-and-recovery effort. The United States Air Force and Air National Guard provided three additional HC-130P/J aircraft on October 6. A total of 183,000 sq nmi (630,000 km2; 242,000 sq mi) of water was covered in search of the vessel. Two debris fields were discovered: one covering 260 sq nmi (890 km2) situated near El Faro's final position, and the other spanning 61 sq nmi (210 km2) located 60 nmi (110 km) northeast of the first debris field. At sunset on October 7, the Coast Guard announced the cessation of search operations.
On October 7, a Navy salvage team was requested, at the behest of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), to search for the wreckage. Florida Senator Bill Nelson wrote a letter to the NTSB urging them to look into TOTE's policies regarding severe weather. Nelson also cited that the vessel's lifeboats were "outdated and inadequate for the conditions the crew faced." TOTE established a fund for families of the crew on October 9 through the Seamen's Church Institute of New York and New Jersey. On October 14, a $100 million lawsuit was filed against TOTE by a family member of one of the missing crew, citing negligence on the company's behalf in letting a non-seaworthy vessel sail into a hurricane. On October 28, another lawsuit was filed on behalf of the estate of a man who died in the sinking. The complaint stated that “without power, the M/V EL FARO was merely a cork in the sea as the Hurricane neared.” By April 19, 2016, TOTE Maritime had settled with 18 of the 33 families for more than $7 million.
Search for the wreckage
On October 19, the USNS Apache departed from Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek–Fort Story in Virginia Beach, Virginia to conduct the underwater search for El Faro. The vessel was equipped with a towed pinger locator, side-scan sonar, and a remotely operated vehicle. The search crew identified a vessel on October 31 at an approximate depth of 15,000 ft (4,600 m). The hydrostatic pressure at this depth is approximately 6,688 pounds per square inch (46,110 kPa). The NTSB reported that the object was, "consistent with a [790 ft (240 m)] cargo ship...in an upright position and in one piece." On November 16, the National Transportation Safety Board announced it had completed its search of the sunken ship but did not find the voyage data recorder. On January 3, 2016, the NTSB opened the public accident docket on the investigation into sinking of El Faro, initially releasing underwater images and video of the vessel.
Second and third search effort for VDR
On April 18, 2016, the NTSB, utilizing the RV Atlantis, a Navy-owned vessel operated by mariners of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, launched a second search for the ship's voyage data recorder (VDR). On April 26, the NTSB stated the voyage data recorder was found about 41 mi (66 km) northeast of Acklins and Crooked Islands, Bahamas. The NTSB was unable to retrieve the recorder at that time because of its proximity to the mast and other obstructions. On August 5, 2016, USNS Apache went back to the site. On August 9, 2016, the voyage data recorder was finally recovered from the wreckage by USNS Apache, 10 months after the sinking. The VDR was then delivered to the NTSB in Mayport, FL to continue the investigation.
Presentation of findings
US Coast Guard
The Coast Guard El Faro Marine Board of Investigation completed its final report on September 24, 2017 and published it on October 1, 2017 in its document library. The 199-page Marine Board's Report detailed facts, analysis, and conclusions and made safety, administrative, and enforcement recommendations.
Coast Guard investigators placed nearly all of the blame on Michael Davidson, El Faro's captain. Davidson underestimated the strength of the storm and the ship's ability to ride it out, and did not take enough measures to evade the storm, even though his crew raised concerns about its increasing strength and changing direction. Investigators stated that if Davidson had survived the storm, his actions would have been grounds for the Coast Guard to revoke his captain's license. "(Davidson) was ultimately responsible for the vessel, the crew and its safe navigation," said Capt. Jason Neubauer, who chaired the investigation.
Coast Guard investigators also lambasted TOTE Maritime, El Faro's owner, stating the company made several violations regarding crew members' rest periods and work hours, had no dedicated safety officer to oversee the El Faro, and used outdated, "open air" lifeboats (similar to the types used on older vessels, such as the RMS Titanic) instead of the modern-day enclosed survival crafts, among other violations.
The NTSB met in Washington, D.C. on December 12, 2017, to discuss contributing factors to the sinking as well as to "vote on recommendations to address safety issues uncovered during the investigation." The board meeting was webcast live. The board's 400-page report:   
- criticized the captain's decision to advance into the oncoming storm, despite numerous calls from the crew to alter course, and noted he had relied on outdated weather information from a commercial service
- criticized the Coast Guard's practices of grandfathering in vessels, exempting them from using closed lifeboats: the obsolescent lifeboats were not properly maintained, they were not launched, and in all probability they would not have offered useful shelter
- noted the owner's failure to maintain a superannuated and deteriorating vessel
- List of Bermuda Triangle incidents
- List of disasters in the United States by death toll
- List of maritime disasters in the 21st century
- List of roll-on/roll-off vessel accidents
- List of shipwrecks in 2015
- List of shipwrecks of North America
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A recording salvaged from three miles deep tells the story of the doomed El Faro, a cargo ship engulfed by a hurricane.
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