Into the Raging Sea – The Story of SS El Faro

I recently read a book titled “Into the Raging Sea” by Rachel Slade. This is the story of the sinking and loss of the container ship SS El Faro and all 33 of her crew.

El Faro was designed and built as a roll-on/roll-off (like the Cape May ferry) cargo ship in 1975 and named Puerto Rico. Cargo shipping was evolving to container trailer technology. In 1993, the ship was lengthened by 90 feet (total 791 feet) and accommodated roll-on/roll-off cargo on the lower holds and trailer type containers on the upper holds and decks. She also was renamed Northern Lights. In 2003, she served the US Military providing cargo and troop transport service during the Iraq war. In 2006, she returned to civilian service for its latest owner, TOTE Corporation and renamed El Faro. In 2015, El Faro was making regular runs between Jacksonville, FL and Puerto Rico with all forms of cargo from trucks to peanut butter.

El Faro departed Jacksonville on September 29, 2015 sailing to Puerto Rico even though Hurricane Joaquin was growing in its path. The captain misjudged the path of the hurricane and set his course directly into it rather than avoiding the storm. El Faro sailed into the eye of the hurricane and was not heard from again.

I wrote a blog a few years ago about the SS Poet. Like the Poet, El Faro departed port with no known issues and was mysteriously lost. Unlike Poet, searchers eventually found the sunken El Faro three miles down and the recovery team was able to retrieve the ship’s “black box”. The box provided a wealth of information about the ship’s mechanical status through the storm and sinking. It also provided 26 hours of voice recordings on the ship’s bridge. The recordings revealed several crew members requesting a change of course and the captain insisting on the fatal path.

Rachel Slade’s book looks at the disaster from every angle. She describes the transition of El Faro from roll-on/off to an awkward combination with containers on the deck which changed the balance and stability of the ship. She creates graphic profiles of many officers and crew on board gathered from interviews with family and friends. She tracks the evolution of corporate priorities and policies during the life of El Faro and the elimination of safeguards intended to assist on-board crews and captains in making critical decisions. And she reviews the board investigations in detail that were conducted by the US Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Eventually, fault was spread around several culprits. The captain was faulted for refusing to take a longer, safer course around the storm fearing the corporate pressure to arrive in Puerto Rico on time. The National Weather Service was faulted for doing an unusually poor job in tracking and predicting the path of Hurricane Joaquin. TOTE was faulted for 1) delaying or ignoring maintenance needs of the ship; 2) no longer providing support services to on-board crews needing navigation and/or equipment repair assistance; and 3) creating a convoluted corporate structure that assured no one in the corporate hierarchy was responsible for the actions of on-board crews. To this day, lawsuits continue through the legal system.

The similarities between Poet and El Faro remain obvious. A crew of merchant mariners was lost. The devastated families and friends of the crew remain without any corporate acceptance of responsibility. Poor maintenance caused – or at least contributed to – the disaster. And corporate greed was more concerned with profit than safety. Hopefully, the loss of El Faro will force some changes to rules and regulations to avoid some of the shortages found in this tragic loss.

If you share my interest in maritime disasters, I highly recommend this book. It is a good read. But don’t expect a climatic “THE END”. Maritime safety still is not the first priority of cargo shippers.

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  • Gary Carlson

    Back in the ’80s, I was mate on a tanker. The captain’s son had been 3rd mate on the Poet. He didn’t say much about it, and I had forgotten about it until I read in this blog.
    BTW, 2½ months after the sinking of the El Faro, I was on a survey vessel sailing from Port Canaveral to Panama. We altered course to pass over the last know position of the El Faro on Christmas Eve. We held a very nice, solemn memorial for the memory of the crew. Our ship was manned by the same two unions, and some of our guys knew fellows from the El Faro. The Captain would read a name, I (chief mate) would toll the ship’s bell, and as each name was read, a crew member tossed a flower overboard. It was a beautiful day; so unlike 1 October. Interestingly, 12 hours later we rescued a solo sailor whose boat was sinking and we carried him on to Panama.

    • Dave

      Gary, thank you for sharing your comments on both the SS Poet and El Faro. I am impressed with your description of the ceremony your shipmates held when passing over the last known position of El Faro. This was a touching demonstration of the camaraderie and respect merchant mariners held for each other, especially when faced with tragedy. Your rescue of a solo sailor in distress is a fitting added example of your concern for fellow seamen. Thanks again.

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