Two years ago this past October 1, in the face of Hurricane Joaquin’s 150-mph winds, 40-year-old cargo ship El Faro went down, sinking 15,000 feet of water to the sea floor near the Bahamas and killing 33 people on board. The worst maritime disaster for a U.S.-flagged vessel since 1983, the El Faro was one of two ships owned by TOTE Maritime Inc. that navigated in constant rotation between Jacksonville, Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The Coast Guard recently released a 199-page report based on a Marine Board of Investigation and its recommendations that could eventually lead to changes in the shipping industry. The primary cause of the disaster, according to the report, was the captain underestimating the strength of the hurricane and overestimating the ship’s strength. Captain Michael Davidson, says the report, should have changed El Faro’s route to avoid the hurricane’s winds. Furthermore, when the 790-foot vessel got stuck, the captain, the report cites, should have taken more aggressive measures to save it.

The report, according to the Associated Press (AP), also said TOTE Maritime Inc., had not replaced a safety officer, instead spread out those duties among other managers, and had violated regulations regarding crew rest periods and working hours.

There were also problems with shipping safety inspections. Ships like the El Faro are inspected by surveyors who work for organizations called “classification societies” to ensure the vessels meet the Coast Guard’s safety standards under its Alternate Compliance Program (ACP), and certify whether they are seaworthy. The investigation report said the societies’ “surveyors are not held accountable for performing substandard ACP inspections that miss glaring safety deficiencies” and the Coast Guard doesn’t have a system for tracking which societies produced which below-par inspections. Moreover, the Coast Guard doesn’t produce yearly reports on ACP compliance or the work done by classification societies. The report says that this “the lack of transparency has enabled vessel compliance and surveyor performance issues to continue unabated.”

The investigation board in the report recommends a series of steps to make classification societies and surveyors more accountable and prepared for their role, but others feel only experienced Coast Guard inspectors should perform these shipping inspections.  For example, when senior Coast Guard inspectors in 2016 checked the El Faro’s sister ship, the El Yunque, and opened up a ventilation trunk on one of the cargo holds they “found enough rust and wastage of the metal trunk that an inspector hitting a hammer against the metal to check for decay accidentally punched a hole,” the report said. The same vents on El Faro were probably a way water spread from one hold to another as the ship gradually flooded before it sank 15,000 feet deep in the ocean, the report said.

Other findings in the report, according to the AP, include:

  • A few weeks before the accident, TOTE stopped employing in-port helpers who assisted its ships’ crews to safely load cargo. The Coast Guard said the El Faro’s crew had a hard time keeping up with the pace needed to get the ship out on schedule. A manager at the port took a photo of the El Faro the day before its final launch because unbalanced loading had caused it to lean heavily to one side, more than he had ever seen. He alerted stevedores, who added containers to the other side to rebalance the ship.
  • When the El Faro departed Jacksonville the oil level in its main engine was below the manufacturer’s recommendation although still within the range for operation. That became crucial when the El Faro began leaning in the storm, as the oil level no longer reached the pump. That starved the engine, shutting it down. The loss of propulsion left the El Faro helpless against Joaquin and its waves.
  • Four of the five Polish workers who had been temporarily assigned to the El Faro spoke little English and none of them had been briefed on safety procedures. The wife of one of the men told investigators “he had never seen or worked on a hulk like this” and that as he worked, rust would fall into his eyes.
  • A weather prediction system that would have sent emailed updates about Joaquin to Davidson had not been activated.
  • Less than six hours before the El Faro sank Second Mate Danielle Randolph, who was in charge of safety, was recorded telling another crewmember that drills were not taken seriously. She added that crewmembers rarely try on their survival suits to make sure they fit. As the ship was going down and Davidson ordered the ship abandoned, Randolph was heard leaving the bridge to find life vests either because none were stored there as required or she didn’t know where they were.

A comprehensive list of safety recommendations based on the findings of the report is covered here.

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Sources: The Florida Times Union, ABC, The Maritime Executive