The loss of El Faro in 2015 was one of the worst maritime disasters in recent U.S. history when 33 people lost their lives during Hurricane Joaquin. It took ten months for the NTSB, with the help of the U.S. Navy, to locate and retrieve the vessel's voice data recorder. This article, from the April 2018 issue of Vanity Fair, takes a look at how the sinking of El Faro unfolded based upon the transcripts of the voice recorder. It is worth a read to both understand how a series of events led to this avoidable tragedy as well as to give a voice to the lives that were lost aboard the ship on her last voyage.
In the darkness before dawn on Thursday, October 1, 2015, an American merchant captain named Michael Davidson sailed a 790-foot U.S.-flagged cargo ship, El Faro, into the eye wall of a Category 3 hurricane on the exposed windward side of the Bahama Islands. El Faro means “the lighthouse” in Spanish. The hurricane, named Joaquin, was one of the heaviest ever to hit the Bahamas. It overwhelmed and sank the ship. Davidson and the 32 others aboard drowned. They had been headed from Jacksonville, Florida, on a weekly run to San Juan, Puerto Rico, carrying 391 containers and 294 trailers and cars. The ship was 430 miles southeast of Miami in deep water when it went down. Davidson was 53 and known as a stickler for safety. He came from Windham, Maine, and left behind a wife and two college-age daughters. Neither his remains nor those of his shipmates were ever recovered. Disasters at sea do not get the public attention that aviation accidents do, in part because the sea swallows the evidence. It has been reported that a major merchant ship goes down somewhere in the world every two or three days; most are ships sailing under flags of convenience, with underpaid crews and poor safety records. The El Faro tragedy attracted immediate attention for several reasons. El Faro was a U.S.-flagged ship with a respected captain—and it should have been able to avoid the hurricane. Why didn’t it? Add to that mystery this simple fact: the sinking of El Faro was the worst U.S. maritime disaster in three decades.
To the outside world, the first hint of trouble came with a phone call that Captain Davidson made from El Faro’s navigation bridge to the owners, a shipping company called TOTE, and specifically to the safety-and-operations manager, a former captain named John Lawrence, who was listed on the ship as the official point of contact, or “designated person ashore.” The time was 6:59 A.M., just after dawn. Lawrence was dressing for work at his home in Jacksonville, and he just missed answering. When he got to his cell phone he saw that the call had come in from a satellite number and that a voice mail had been left. He listened to the message, which sounded calm, even nonchalant. It was 33 seconds long:
Captain Lawrence? Captain Davidson. Thursday morning, 0700. We have a navigational incident. I’ll keep it short. A scuttle popped open on two-deck and we were having some free communication of water go down the three-hold. Have a pretty good list. I want to just touch—contact you verbally here. Everybody’s safe, but I want to talk to you.
There was no background noise. To Lawrence, this did not sound like a message of distress. He began to dial the satellite number to return the call.
Meanwhile, Davidson, having failed to get through, dialed TOTE’s emergency call center, a company that provides after-hours services primarily to physicians. At 7:01, the operator answered. Sounding less casual than he had in his message to Lawrence, Davidson said, “This is a marine emergency. Yes, this is a marine emergency.”
The operator said, “O.K., sir.”
“Are you connecting me through to a Q.I.?” “Q.I.” stands for “qualified individual.” He used the term to mean a designated person ashore.
The operator answered, “That’s what I’m getting ready to do. We’re seeing who is on call, and I’m going to get you right to them. Give me one second, sir. I’m going to put you on a quick hold. So one moment, please.” She paused. “O.K., sir. I just need your name, please.”
“Yes, ma’am. My name is Michael Davidson. Michael C. Davidson.”
She paused. “Your rank?”
“O.K. Thank you.”
She paused. “Ship’s name?”
“Spell that. E-l . . .”
Davidson said, “Oh, man! The clock is ticking! Can I please speak to a Q.I.?” His voice crackled with tension. “El Faro. Echo Lima Space Foxtrot Alpha Romeo Oscar. El Faro!”
“O.K., in case I lose you, what is your phone number, please?”
He gave her two numbers. She said, “Got it, sir. Again, I’m going to get you reached right now. One moment, please.”
While he waited, Davidson used a handheld radio to call the ship’s chief mate, who was on a lower deck checking on a cargo hold that was flooding massively. Another operator at the call center came on the line. She said, “Just really briefly, what is the problem you’re having?” Her request appears to have been a procedural requirement at the call center. Davidson had already been waiting for five minutes and at one point had impatiently muttered, “Oh, God!” Now he answered in a resigned monotone. “I have a marine emergency and I would like to speak to a Q.I. We had a hull breach—a scuttle blew open during a storm. We have water down in three-hold with a heavy list. We’ve lost the main propulsion unit. The engineers cannot get it going. Can I speak to a Q.I., please?”
The operator said, “Yes, thank you so much.” She paused. “One moment . . .”
She patched him through to Lawrence. On the phone at last with his peer, Davidson sounded calm again. He said, “Yeah, I’m real good. We have, uh, secured the source of water coming into the vessel. A scuttle was blown open by the water perhaps, no one knows, can’t tell. It’s since been closed. However, three-hold’s got a considerable amount of water in it. 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 a latitude and longitude. I just wanted to give you a heads-up before I push that—push that button.”