Mystery of El Faro: Owner Says Engine Work, Speed, Age Not Factors

by Tracy Connor and Mark Potter /  / Updated 

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The owner of the 40-year-old cargo ship that stalled and was swallowed up by Hurricane Joaquin off the Bahamas said work was being done on the engine room during the doomed voyage — but that wasn't a factor in the vessel's mysterious power loss.

The El Faro, which had 33 crew members on board when it sank 15,000 feet into the Atlantic, was being prepped for a move to a new route and the maintenance work was not related "to a problem on board the ship," said Phil Greene, president of TOTE Services.

With the cause of the tragedy still unclear, the National Transportation Safety Board sent a crew Tuesday to Jacksonville, Florida, the port that the ship departed from on Sept. 29 for a four-day trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The U.S. Coast Guard, meanwhile, continued to search for victims and survivors after finding one body in a survival suit and one battered lifeboat in a 225-mile debris field.

Officials from TOTE said they were cooperating fully with the investigation as they fended off questions about whether the ship's age or speed could have contributed to the catastrophe and why the captain would take the ship into a hurricane.

"We don't have all the answers. I'm sorry for that. We wish we did, but we will find out what happened," Anthony Chiarello, president of parent company TOTE Inc., said at a news conference late Monday.

When the El Faro set off on Sept. 29, Joaquin was just a tropical storm with maximum wind speeds of 40 mph and Capt. Michael Davidson thought he would be ahead of it, TOTE officials said.

Within two hours, forecasters were predicting a strengthening storm that would come closer to the ship's path off the Bahamas, and by the following morning, Joaquin had been declared a Category 1 hurricane.

At 10 a.m., Davidson sent an email in which he "indicated that he understood the weather condition that was out in front of him...and that he had a sound plan, that the crew was well prepared and briefed," Greene said.

It was the captain's assessment, Greene said, that "the weather conditions looked very favorable."

As the hours passed, the storm gained strength. Winds surged from 85 mph to 115 mph, and early on Oct. 1, the ship reported that it had lost power, was listing 15 degrees and was taking on water.The El Faro "was in the path of the storm," Greene said.

That was the last communication from the ship.

Company officials said it's ultimately the captain's responsibility to come up with a voyage plan, though they did confirm that TOTE could have vetoed the trip.

They said the ship's age and the fact that it had been lengthened by 90 feet would not have played any role in the disaster. The El Faro was traveling at 20 knots, close to top speed, but they said that was within normal parameters.

"We have tried to lay out with as much transparency and detail of the communication that the captain had and his plan for the voyage track," Greene said. "I think what's regrettable in this is the fact that the vessel did become disabled in the path of the storm and that is what led to ultimately the tragedy."

Max Hardberger, a former freighter captain and maritime lawyer who knows the area where El Faro disappeared, said he was loathe to second-guess the captain's decision to set off in a tropical storm, but that in hindsight it would have been prudent to find a secure anchorage and wait out the storm.

"The idea is, you don't mind losing the vessel, but you want to avoid the loss of life," Hardberger said. He said the captain may have felt confident on a route he had traveled many times before, felt the storm was not going to get too bad, and been cognizant of the time pressure involved in meeting shipping schedules.

On Tuesday afternoon, five days after the loss of radio contact, the search for survivors involved three Coast Guard cutters, three commercial tugboats, a Navy P-8 plane, two Air Force C-130s, two Coast Guard C-130s, and a Coast Guard HH60 helicopter.

In the search for answers, the NTSB was hoping to recover the voyage data recorder, though it noted that the depth of the water and the size of the debris field posed "a huge challenge," Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr said.

Kirk Greiner, a maritime consultant who worked on the Exxon Valdez accident reconstruction, said the clues to what happened might be found on shore rather than at sea.

“In a case where a vessel is lost, the procedure is to go back and talk to people who sailed on her last, inspected, basically trying to get information from living people about the vessel," he said.

He said that after the 1978 loss of the oceanographic vessel MV Holo Holo, investigators went back to blueprints for the ship to determine that drains in the bulwark were inadequate and trapped water inside, destabilizing it.

Debris floating on the surface of the ocean is unlikely to hold many answers unless it’s charred, which would indicate a fire, Greiner said. And with the engines presumably resting 15,000 feet below, a thorough forensic examination is all but impossible, although an unmanned submersible could be sent down to survey the wreck, he said.

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