NTSB criticizes owner and captain of El Faro

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has found fault in the captain and the owner of cargo ship El Faro, which was sunk by Hurricane Joaquin on October 1st 2015, killing all 33 on board.

El Faro was en route from Jacksonville, Florida to San Juan, Puerto Rico when it sank. The wreck was found on the seafloor a month later and in August 2016 the voyage data recorder was recovered from the wreck.

NTSB said that the captain of El Faro, Michael Davidson, had relied on hurricane information that was out of date, and that on three occasions he ignored other officers who suggested that the ship should change course. The ship had left Jacksonville on September 29th 2015 and had a range of navigation options that would have allowed it to steer clear of the storm that later became a Category 4 hurricane. The captain was consulting outdated weather forecasts and ignored suggestions from his bridge officers to take the ship farther south and away from the storm. Instead he ordered a course that intersected with the path of a hurricane, which pounded the ship with 35-foot seas and 100 mph winds, said the NTSB.

In the last few hours of the voyage the crew struggled to deal with a sequence of events, any one of which could have endangered the ship on its own.

Seawater entered the ship through cargo loading and other openings on a partially enclosed deck in the ship’s hull; it pooled on the starboard side and poured through an open hatch into a cargo hold, which began to fill with seawater. Automobiles in the hold broke free of lashings and probably ruptured a fire main pipe that would have allowed thousands of gallons of seawater per minute into the ship – faster than could be removed by bilge pumps.

About 90 minutes before it sank the listing ship lost its propulsion and was unable to manoeuvre.

The report also stated that he waited too long to issue an order to abandon ship.

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said that “we may never understand why the captain failed to heed his crew’s concerns about sailing into the path of a hurricane, or why he refused to chart a safer course away from such dangerous weather, but we know all too well the devastating consequences of those decisions.”

Tote, the ship’s owner, was also criticized by the findings. It said that the owner did not monitor El Faro’s position relative to the hurricane; neither did it offer support as the storm intensified. Tote was found to have a weak safety culture and to have failed to provide adequate training. The lifeboats on El Faro were of the old-fashioned open variety. The newer enclosed models would have offered greater protection, the NTSB said.

Although the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship when the sinking was imminent, the crew’s chances of survival were significantly reduced because El Faro was equipped with life rafts and open uncovered lifeboats, which met legal requirements, but which were ineffective in hurricane conditions.

Sumwalt said that the ship was not “destined” to sink. “If the crew had more information about the status of the hatches, how to best manage the flooding situation, and the ship’s vulnerabilities when in a sustained list, the accident might have been prevented”, he said.

The NTSB made 29 recommendations to the US Coast Guard, two to the Federal Communications Commission, one to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, nine to the International Association of Classification Societies, one to the American Bureau of Shipping, one to Furuno Electric Company and 10 to TOTE Services.