October 6, 2022

A missing ship with no signs of survivors

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subSHIP-articleLargeBy Lizette Alvarez, Richard Pérez-Peña and Frances Robles

The Search for El Faro From New York Times

MIAMI — By the time the cargo ship El Faro pulled out of the busy port in Jacksonville, Fla., last Tuesday ready to begin its routine 1,200-mile run of goods to San Juan, P.R., Tropical Storm Joaquin, as it had been recently christened, was threatening to become a hurricane.

For many experienced captains of large vessels, a tropical storm, even one that is strengthening, is cause for concern but not necessarily alarm. Such storms in the Caribbean, along Hurricane Alley, are commonplace and carefully monitored, and do not necessarily lead to canceled voyages, veteran captains said.

But by the time El Faro and its 33 crew members approached the Bahamas, the storm had turned treacherous more quickly than anticipated. It hurdled past hurricane Categories 1, 2 and 3 until it settled at 4, a fearsome ball of wind, waves and rain, and then it sat. By Thursday, El Faro was trapped in the crush of 50-foot seas and winds of 125 miles per hour, near the eye of the hurricane. Listing dangerously 15 degrees, the ship, full of cargo containers and cars, was taking on water. The engine failed, making it impossible to steer. Then, after a distress signal, all communication vanished at 7:20 a.m.

On Monday morning, the Coast Guard here said it feared the worst: “We believe it sank in the last known position that we recorded on Thursday,” about 35 miles northeast of Crooked Islands, the Bahamas, in 15,000 feet of water, Capt. Mark Fedor said. “We are still looking for survivors or any signs of life or any signs of that vessel.”

Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 8.05.54 AMOf the 33 crew members, no survivors have been found. One person was discovered dead inside a survival suit, which is meant to keep people afloat and protect them from hypothermia. Coast Guard personnel also spotted a container, a cargo door and carpets of plastic foam used to pack goods in containers. And they recovered a lifeboat with El Faro markings on it, but no one in it, Captain Fedor said. “It was heavily damaged,” he added.

The sinking of the United States-flagged ship, the worst in recent memory near the American coastline, raises a host of questions about the wisdom of the trip. Should the growing storm have been cause for greater concern? Was the age of the 790-foot ship — 40 years — a factor? Was the storm survivable? Did shipping schedules override safety concerns? And should the captain have changed his route to skirt the hurricane, which would have extended the length of the trip?

Relatives of El Faro’s missing crew have gathered since the weekend at the Seafarers International Union hall in an office park in Jacksonville, hoping for some positive news amid the deepening gloom about the ship’s fate.

Destiny Sparrow, 22, arrived at the Seafarers union hall in a desperate quest for more information about her father, Frank Hamm, whose job was to steer the ship. She said the company still had not fully explained what happened, or why the ship had gone out to sea in a storm.

“That’s what I did not like! That makes no sense to me at all,” she said firmly. Mr. Hamm, 49, a married father of four, has worked at sea since 1999 and is a hard worker who invites homeless people to spend the night at his home and eat Thanksgiving dinner, she said.

Several sailors said they were holding out hope and also questioned why the ship sailed toward the storm.

Roland Johnson, who said he often worked standby with the same crew as the one on El Faro, said the sailors receive exhaustive training to prepare for such a disaster. “My question is: Why did it go out?” he said. “The storm was there. Why go? Why?”

Others see horrible luck more than flawed judgment.

“Most ships will encounter tropical storm conditions on a frequent basis, particularly at this time; it’s not something they would necessarily attempt to avoid,” said Capt. Joseph S. Murphy II, a licensed master mariner and commercial vessel captain who has been going to sea since 1968, including along El Faro’s route. “These vessels are very robust; they are capable of handling both types of situation — tropical storms, tropical depressions. And this ship has encountered those on numerous occasions.”

“In this case, I think, it was the worst-case scenario,” he added. “Everything that could go wrong did.”

At a news conference late Monday, officials from TOTE Inc., the umbrella company that owns El Faro, stressed that the route had been planned by the captain, a person whom they have great confidence in and who seemed optimistic about the weather conditions.

The captain sent an email indicating that he had a sound plan to bypass the storm by a comfortable margin, and was even discussing his return trip, said Philip H. Greene Jr., president of TOTE Services, a subsidiary of TOTE Inc. Mr. Greene suggested that the captain’s route probably would have been successful had the ship’s engine not failed, leaving the vessel idling in the storm’s path.

“It went from nothing to a tropical depression to a tropical storm to a Category 1 very quickly,” Mr. Greene said. “The captain had been monitoring that storm.”

Company officials stressed that the ship was in good shape and had not been rushing to meet any kind of schedule.

Some maritime experts, though, are raising questions about the ship’s age and whether it may have played a role in the sinking. El Faro, which means lighthouse in Spanish, was built in 1975 and had been renovated in 2006, the company’s website said. Throughout the decades, it had been regularly maintained and updated and had passed numerous Coast Guard inspections, according to the company website. The last inspection was on March 5 and 6. It was also inspected by the American Bureau of Shipping on Feb. 13.

The company was getting ready to launch a brand new ship powered with liquid natural gas, which was expected to make the Jacksonville-San Juan run. El Faro was being retrofitted and was going to be sent to Alaska. A company spokesman said that five Polish workers were on board to do the retrofitting.

“This is a tragedy that certainly could have been avoided,” said Capt. William H. Doherty, the director of maritime relations at Nexus Consulting Group in Arlington, Va., and a former commander of tankers and container ships who also served on numerous Navy warships. “That ship was 40 years old. In spite of all that anybody tells you, this ship was on extended life support.”

Before he left, Capt. Michael Davidson, of Maine, would have carefully planned out his trip and used all possible technological tools to track the storm and his route. But hurricanes, despite modern technology, can remain stubbornly unpredictable. The storm intensified quickly, said Captain Murphy, who is also a tenured professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

Even if Mr. Davidson had an alternative route, it would have taken a long time — 24 to 36 hours — to evade the storm under those conditions. “It’s not like you are going to step on the gas and get out of the way,” he said.

But Capt. Sam S. Stephenson, a former merchant mariner and Naval Reserve officer who is now a harbor pilot in Port Everglades, said it would have been safer to head along the Florida coast to the old Bahama Channel, to the north coast of Cuba and then going on from there.

“Going north of the Crooked Islands such as the El Faro did not leave many options to avoid the hurricane,” he said.

During the Coast Guard’s operations, planes spotted a handful of survival suits in the water, including one with an unidentifiable body in it, Captain Fedor said. A diver confirmed that the person in the suit, often called a Gumby suit because of its rubberlike appearance, was dead.

If crew members were able to get into one of the lifeboats and launch it, “they would have been abandoning ship into a Category 4 hurricane,” Captain Fedor said. “You’re talking about 140-mile-an-hour winds, seas upwards of 50 feet, basically zero visibility. Those are challenging conditions to survive in.”

When asked if the ship should have gone ahead with the voyage, Captain Fedor said, “That was the ship captain’s decision to make.” He said both the National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard would investigate the incident.

Aircraft from the Coast Guard and the Navy are searching two distinct debris fields, Captain Fedor said.

Before Saturday, the search was stymied because “Hurricane Joaquin was essentially sitting right over it,” he said.

TOTE serves Puerto Rico and Alaska under the 95-year-old Jones Act, which requires that United States flagged, owned and crewed ships carry goods from one American port to another. The company has been delivering goods to Puerto Rico under the law for more than 30 years.

“We’re not going to discount somebody’s will to survive,” Captain Fedor said.

The cargo ship El Faro. Credit Tote Maritime, via Reuters
Source: MarineTraffic By The New York Times

For more on this story and video go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/06/us/el-faro-missing-ship-hurricane-joaquin.html?_r=0

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