In times of peril, a lighthouse can mean salvation, safety, and shelter to a boater fighting the clutches of a storm or hurricane. Beacons of hope; a light at the end of the dark tunnel in the most literal sense.
With Hurricane Joaquin on the horizon, El Faro, a 790-foot container ship whose name means "lighthouse" took on a far darker meaning for the 33 souls aboard.
Losing a ship the size of El Faro in today's modern marine world is extremely rare. In the past decade, only six ships over 100 gross tons have been listed as "missing/overdue" (read: lost at sea) according to Allianz Insurance, the last of which occurred in 2010.
This is not to say that these ships do not sink, just that they normally do so with enough warning for crews to be rescued or are preceded by a significant event like a collision with another ship.
The next question may be, why would a captain set to sea with such a monstrous storm on the horizon? Large container ships are generally built to withstand storms at sea. Additionally, ships of El Faro's size run the risk of being battered and damaged by their enormous weight slamming against a pier while they are in port.
She also had another advantage built-in, El Faro was carrying cargo. The added weight would have made her less squirrely and easier to handle in the face of rough seas. These factors are important as the key to survival is keeping the vessel's bow into the wind and waves.
However, just before losing contact, the captain's last report indicated a dire situation: The El Faro was taking on water, and had lost propulsion. Without the engine to push the ship into the breaking sea, the El Faro had rotated and was taking the seas directly to her side—the most vulnerable position.
To make matters worse, Joaquin had spun up in strength and had taken a turn southeast, right on a intercepting course with El Faro. The forecast predicted wind gusts of 150 mile an hour, with seas of 30 feet.
"We know that they had lost propulsion, that the engineers were unable to restart the main engine," Tom Roth-Roffy, a marine engineer at the NTSB tells 60 Minutes's Scott Pelley. "We know that the vessel was listing about 15 degrees and that one of the hatches had popped or had come open."
The ensuing search for El Faro, and the following NTSB investigation, has faced many obstacles including having little clues as to where to look for the wreckage.
"Three weeks later, Apache arrived in a search area of 198 square miles," Pelley narrates in the 60 Minutes feature. "Chief sonar operator Charles Kapica towed a side-scan sonar for five days when he spotted something you don't see in nature: a right angle."
The search revealed a mangled wreckage buried in a grave 15,000 feet, almost three miles, below the surface.
At a depth with no light, the Apache's search crew sent down a remote-controlled submersible to examine El Faro's crushed, steel remains. Most shockingly, it was discovered that the top two decks, including the captain's bridge, had been completely sheared off. The bridge would eventually be found a half mile from the wreckage.
"Just to see the violence of the sea and the winds that would have had to occur to cause that kind of an event," Roth-Roffy said.
The biggest missing piece that remains is the ship's data recorder, which would have told investigators exactly what was happening when the ship went down. Without it investigators can only speculate.
One leading theory is that the rough seas pushed the vessel's stern out of the water, causing the propeller to spin too fast. This would have shut down the turbine engine causing El Faro to spin and be broadsided by the crushing seas.
It is yet to be seen if the search for the data recorder will succeed, but Chris Hart, chairman of the NTSB is holding out hope.
None of the bodies of the 33 sailors aboard have been found, and many of the families believe they are still entombed in the main hull, where they would have been fighting to restart El Faro's engine—Their last fighting chance.