Photo Credit : National Transportation Safety Board
Though the sinking of the container ship El Faro during Hurricane Joaquin in October 2015 made headlines around the world, the full picture wouldn’t emerge until almost a year later. Boston journalist Rachel Slade dug deep into the events that would ultimately claim the lives of all 33 aboard the El Faro, including eight New Englanders; the result was her investigative feature in Yankee’s November/December 2016 issue, “A Fatal Mistake,” which The Atlantic has hailed as a “definitive” account of the tragedy. For readers in search of El Faro update material, please see blow.
EL FARO UPDATE
Slade’s story was followed in December 2016 by the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) release of a 500-page transcript of crew communications during the El Faro’s final hours. Compiled as part of the NTSB’s ongoing investigation of the sinking, it’s the longest such document the agency has ever compiled.
In February 2017, the focus shifted to Jacksonville, Florida, as the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation (MBI) held public hearings on the El Faro. It was the MBI’s third and final round of public hearings on the tragedy, following a nearly nine-month lag since the hearings of May 2016.
Among the key pieces of expert testimony during the final two-week session in February:
Cold water flooding into the engine room could have caused “catastrophic” boiler explosion.
The way the ship’s cargo was secured could have led to its shifting or breaking loose during the storm.
Ship officers may not have gotten the required rest before going on watch.
The ship’s distress signal did not include GPS location, and stopped transmitting after only 24 minutes (48 hours is typical).
The ship’s lifeboats likely had not been launched.
The MBI hearings wrapped up on February 17, 2017. Still to come were final reports and recommendations from both the MBI and the NTSB, though no timeline was set. Depending on the findings, the MBI could levy civil charges against El Faro’s owner, TOTE Maritime; however, if there’s evidence of criminal activity, the Coast Guard will turn the matter over to the Justice Department.
A few weeks after the end of the MBI hearings, the El Faro tragedy was the focus of a 60 Minutes piece called “Voices of the Lost.” In the March 5, 2017, broadcast, NTSB investigators described what it was like to recover the ship’s voyage data recorder, and to listen to 26 hours of communications (“We listened to the entire [recording] from start to finish, and at the end of it the team was completely silent…. That was very difficult for us to watch that clock count down to the end of the recording”). The segment also raised questions about the actions of Captain Michael Davidson, who was apparently sleeping until just three hours before the ship sank — a time when some critical decisions might have been made to alter course.
On March 9, 2017, it was reported that the family of crew member Lonnie Jordan had settled with TOTE for $500,000 for pain and suffering and an undisclosed amount for economic loss. This meant that all but three of the El Faro crew members’ families had settled with TOTE.
Also in March, Rachel Slade’s feature “A Fatal Mistake” was nominated as a finalist for outstanding reporting in the City and Regional Magazine Association awards. She currently is working on a book about the El Faro sinking — with the working title The Lonely Sea and Sky — for Ecco/HarperCollins, which expects to publish it in fall 2018.
On April 13, 2017, it was reported that the last three families of crew members had reached settlement agreements with TOTE. Details of the agreements — made with the estates of Anthony Thomas, German Solar-Cortes, and Joe Hargrove — were not disclosed.
On September 12, 2017, the NTSB announced that it would meet in December to determine the probable cause of El Faro’s sinking; it is also likely to vote on recommendations to address safety issues uncovered in the investigation. The meeting will begin at 9:30 a.m. Eastern on December 12 and will be webcast live at ntsb.capitolconnection.org.
We’ll provide this page with any additional El Faro update information as it becomes available to us.