One minute after the phone call ended, the ship sent out a distress alert by satellite. At A. Do you have contact or direct communication with the vessel? They called me. The satellite is dropping the call.
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I can give you the phone number. It is now known that, sometime in the 39 minutes since Davidson left his message, El Faro had already sunk, and its crew was in the water beyond reach of rescue, at the center of an impenetrable storm. By midmorning, people began to fear the worst. Having checked the latest dispatches from the National Hurricane Center, the Miami rescue-coordination center went into full-blown emergency action. It asked that Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters divert from their meteorological mission and look for the ship.
Conditions in flight were so rough that the pilots were unable to descend below 10, feet. By the third day, the storm had reversed course, as meteorologists had anticipated it eventually would, and was moving to the northeast, clobbering islands as it went but leaving room in its wake for a massive search to begin. Seven military aircraft covered 30, square miles of ocean that day and found two debris fields, including three life rings, one of which bore the stenciled name El Faro.
When it was recovered, it was found to have been mortally damaged, crushed on both the left and right sides. After an orange immersion suit was spotted in the water, a Coast Guard helicopter lowered a rescue swimmer down to investigate. Before the body could be recovered, the helicopter was called off to investigate a report of a second immersion suit with a possible survivor.
The crew was unable to find it, and when they returned for the corpse they could not relocate it, because a marker beacon they had left behind had failed. On the morning of the fifth day, the Coast Guard announced officially what was already known: it was likely that El Faro had sunk. The search for survivors continued for another two days—ultimately covering more than , square miles—and turned up a couple of oil slicks, three empty immersion suits, three more life rings, and a mile stretch of floating dolls from a container that had burst open.
Even before the search for survivors ended, two separate but collaborative investigations got under way, one by the Coast Guard and the other by the National Transportation Safety Board N. How could a catastrophe like this have happened? El Faro was 41 years old when it died—well past normal retirement age—but it was not a decrepit rust bucket. Admittedly, El Faro had sailed into an intense hurricane that no ship, no matter how seaworthy, should have tangled with—a move that would have to be explained.
It was unlikely that there would be a single cause or culprit, because there rarely is. Absent any one of them, and the disaster would not have occurred—a truth that is not knowable in real time, only in retrospect. That task was arduous, but the ship was found resting upright on a sandy plain 15, feet beneath the surface, and the recorder—a circuit board barely 2. It contained the final 26 hours of conversations among nine doomed people on the bridge.
The audio quality was poor, but a technical team was able to extract most of the spoken words and produce a page transcript, by far the longest in the N. The transcript is a remarkable document—an unadorned record of nothing more than the sounds on the bridge. The people involved are identified in the transcript only by their shipboard ranks, but the names of the officers are part of the public record, and in the time since the tragedy other names have been revealed.
It is now possible to know with reasonable certainty what occurred. The story begins with the captain, Michael Davidson. He grew up near the waterfront in Portland, Maine, and at age 16 got his first maritime job, on a local harbor ferry.
He graduated from the Maine Maritime Academy, a state college overlooking the port of Castine, on Penobscot Bay, in He then began sailing on oil tankers between Alaska and West Coast ports. He stuck with the Alaskan route for the next 15 years, rising from third mate to the rank of chief mate. The Gulf of Alaska is notoriously rough, and Davidson sailed through countless storms, some of hurricane strength. He was by no means a cowboy. He was a by-the-book mariner with a reputation for being unusually competent and organized.
By training and temperament he was a safety-first man. Eventually he switched to dry-cargo ships on the East Coast, and went to work for one of the big American shipping companies, Crowley Maritime. He was a man at peace with himself.
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But then, in , an incident rocked his career. Crowley Maritime asked him to take his ship down the Chesapeake from one port to another, and Davidson refused because a surveyor had found that the steering gear was unreliable and in need of immediate repair. For the sake of the ship, Davidson instead engaged two tugs to tow it to the destination. This cost money. It is said among merchant mariners that, yes, a captain has the authority to refuse orders he deems to be unsafe—but probably only once.
Davidson went off on vacation, and when he returned was informed by Crowley that he no longer had a job. He signed on with TOTE as a lowly third mate, and had to work his way to the top again. Eventually he was given the San Juan run and El Faro to command.
Had Davidson been affected by the punishment he had received? Safety was still first for him, but he may no longer have been the secure man he once was.
Another issue lurked in the background. El Faro and its sister ship, El Yunque, were soon to be sent to Alaska and replaced on the San Juan run by two new, state-of-the-art vessels. Earlier in the year, Davidson had sought a position as captain of the first of them but had come up short. Having earned the highest marks on his latest annual performance review, he was holding out hope that he might yet command the second new ship.
He was carefully courteous to the TOTE office personnel, including John Lawrence, whom he called before he pushed the distress button as he was about to drown. In Jacksonville, the loading for the final run started at one P. The weather was balmy, with light winds and mostly overcast skies.
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Far out in the Atlantic, a tropical depression had been defying forecasts for several days, intensifying rather than simmering down and stubbornly progressing toward the Bahamas on an unusual southwesterly heading rather than turning around and hooking harmlessly back to the northeast, as the meteorological models kept expecting it to do.
Davidson had been monitoring the forecasts and knew of the difficulty the forecasters were having. He had two routes available to him. The first was a straight shot that would take him past the Bahamas through the open ocean for two and a half days and 1, miles on an unwavering southeast heading of degrees, directly to San Juan.
That was the normal way to go. The question was the hurricane. The second route ran south through the Florida Straits, then east along Cuba through a sinewy narrows called the Old Bahama Channel. This route would have placed a string of wave-breaking islands between the ship and the storm. The problem was that it added miles and more than six hours to the trip. The schedule would be thrown out of whack. Davidson opted for the straight shot.
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El Faro was a fast ship—superficially rusty but solid and powerful, the equivalent of a s muscle car—and the timing of the forecast indicated that he could slip past the Bahamas before Joaquin moved in. El Faro cast off at on Tuesday evening. Six hours later Joaquin became a Category 1 hurricane, with sustained winds greater than 74 miles per hour. The eye lay miles east-northeast of San Salvador, the outermost island of the Bahamian chain, and was slowly moving in that direction.
Think of the storm as the right-hand stroke of a V, heading toward the point at the bottom. El Faro , the left-hand stroke of the V, was miles to the northwest and also heading toward the point—though Davidson believed they would pass the bottom point well before the storm arrived. That was the situation at A. The chief mate, Steven Schultz, 54, was standing watch.
Davidson was conferring with him at the chart table. He was the hand who always served with Schultz when Schultz was on watch. The ship was rolling in swells approaching from the left. Probably going to get worse. Remember how we saw this one the other day festering, and we talked about these are the worst?
Schultz mentioned the possibility of heading farther out to sea, passing over the north side of Joaquin, and Davidson pointed out that the storm was expected to reverse course and move north. Schultz suggested an alternative—widening slightly to the right to move south of the direct track line to San Juan, giving the storm a bit more space. He even mentioned the Old Bahama Channel. Get more information.