The National Transportation Safety Board’s final report on one of the worst U.S. maritime disasters in modern history found fault with the captain, the company and the equipment — all contributing to the loss of 33 people when Hurricane Joaquin sank the ship en route to Puerto Rico.
A ship captain’s unwillingness to listen to his crew’s suggestions to change course from the path of a raging hurricane. A weak corporate safety culture. An old ship with outdated lifeboats, open to the elements.
All these factors contributed to the sinking of the El Faro in the fury of Hurricane Joaquin on Oct. 1, 2015, which killed all 33 people on board, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced Tuesday. The board also criticized the “weak safety culture” of ship owner Tote Maritime, a unit of Seattle-based Saltchuk, including the lack of employee training for dealing with heavy weather situations and flooding.
The report concludes a two-year investigation into one of the worst U.S. maritime disasters in modern history.
The NTSB issued 53 safety recommendations along with its findings, which investigators hope will be adopted by the industry, maritime-safety inspectors and weather forecasters to make the seas safer.
“I hope that this tragedy at sea can serve as a lighthouse to guide the safety of marine transportation,” said NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt.
The El Faro, which means lighthouse in Spanish, sank between Jacksonville and San Juan, Puerto Rico, after losing engine power in the Category 3 storm. The NTSB retrieved the ship’s voyage data recorder, or “black box,” from the sea floor near the Bahamas, 15,000 feet under the surface. The device held 26 hours of data, including audio of conversations on the ship’s bridge as the frantic crew struggled to save the ship and themselves.
According to the NTSB, a hatch had been left open, allowing water from the roiling sea to flood an interior hold; this led to the ship’s tilting, disrupting the flow of oil to the engines. Once the freighter lost engine power, it was at the mercy of battering swells.
Also, the ship’s wind gauge, called an anemometer, was broken and the 40-year-old freighter’s open-top lifeboats would not have protected the crew, even if they had been able to launch them. The El Faro was legally allowed to carry lifeboats that expose people to the elements — just like the lifeboats on the Titanic and the Lusitania — because of exemptions for older ships.
Tote has a Federal Way-based Alaska division, in addition to its Puerto Rico operations. Tote has about 1,300 employees and more than 20 vessels under its management, with revenues that exceed $700 million per year, according to the Saltchuk website.
In a statement Tuesday, Tote pointed to the complexity of the investigation and said it was looking forward to reviewing the final report.
“We as a company intend to learn everything possible from this accident and the resulting investigations to prevent anything similar from occurring in the future,” the statement said.
“TOTE also remains focused, as we have from the start, on caring for the families of those we lost and working daily ashore and at sea to safeguard the lives of mariners,” it continued. “Safety has always been a central focus of our company and will remain so in the future.”
While the board found no fault with El Faro Capt. Michael Davidson’s decision to leave port in Jacksonville, they did blame his reliance on an emailed weather-forecasting system that contained hours-old data, rather than online updates from the National Hurricane Center. Investigators believe, based on his decisions and recorded comments, that he wasn’t aware of the delay in the data, and that instead of skirting the storm, he sent the El Faro on a collision course with the hurricane.
“Although up-to-date weather information was available on the ship, the El Faro captain did not use the most current weather information for decision-making,” NTSB investigator Mike Kucharski said at the meeting, held in Washington, D.C.
Whether the crew could have survived Joaquin’s punishing winds and high seas had the El Faro been equipped with the closed-top lifeboats used by newer ships is unknown, but NTSB safety investigator Jon Furukawa said it could have helped.
“Enclosed lifeboats are the current standard, and the El Faro did not have the current standard,” Furukawa said.
The board is not only recommending closed-top boats for all merchant ships, but also that the entire industry require crew members to carry personal locator beacons to better locate them during marine emergencies.
Larry Brennan, a maritime-law professor at Fordham Law School and retired U.S. Navy captain, said the NTSB’s recommendations highlighted major safety problems in the entire industry, including the Coast Guard and classification societies that are in charge of inspecting vessels for safety.
“El Faro was a worn, aged ship, which succumbed to heavy weather in large part because of multiple unseaworthy conditions, poor leadership and bad decisions by the captain, American Bureau of Shipping, the owners as well as inadequate surveys and inspections by the U.S. Coast Guard,” Brennan said.