El Faro Remembered

El Faro wreck on ocean floor, artist's rendering
NTSB artist's rendering of El Faro wreck on ocean floor.

On October 1st, 2015, the U.S. merchant ship SS El Faro sank near Crooked Island, Bahamas in Hurricane Joaquin. The sinking is considered the greatest American merchant shipping disaster in decades.

Thirty-three lives were lost:

(In alphabetical order.)

Louis Champa — Palm Coast, Florida
Roosevelt Clark — Jacksonville, Florida
Sylvester Crawford Jr. — Lawrenceville, Georgia
Michael Davidson — Windham, Maine
Brookie Davis — Jacksonville, Florida
Keith Griffin — Fort Myers, Florida
Frank Hamm — Jacksonville, Florida
Joe Hargrove — Orange Park, Florida
Carey Hatch — Jacksonville, Florida
Michael Holland — North Wilton, Maine
Jack Jackson — Jacksonville, Florida
Jackie Jones, Jr. — Jacksonville, Florida
Lonnie Jordan — Jacksonville, Florida
Piotr Krause — Poland
Mitchell Kuflik — Brooklyn, New York
Roan Lightfoot — Jacksonville Beach, Florida
Jeffrey Mathias — Kingston, Massachusetts
Dylan Meklin — Rockland, Maine
Marcin Nita — Poland
Jan Podgorski — Poland
James Porter — Jacksonville, Florida
Richard Pusatere — Virginia Beach, Virginia
Theodore Quammie — Jacksonville, Florida
Danielle Randolph — Rockland, Massachusetts
Jeremie Riehm — Camden, Delaware
Lashawn Rivera — Jacksonville, Florida
Howard Schoenly — Cape Coral, Florida
Steven Shultz — Roan Mountain, Tennessee
German Solar-Cortes — Orlando, Florida
Anthony Thomas — Jacksonville, Florida
Andrzej Truszkowski — Poland
Mariette Wright — St. Augustine, Florida
Rafal Zdobych — Poland

Like many mariners and former mariners, I followed the joint National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and U.S. Coast Guard investigation closely, including reading the 510-page audio transcript of the ship’s final twenty-six hours. My heart ached for my salt-water brothers and sisters who lost their lives.

As someone who sailed third mate on an aging, decrepit roll on/roll off vessel (as was the El Faro), I was haunted and grieved by the sinking and also stunned by the behavior and decisions of the captain of the El Faro, Michael Davidson.

In reading the whole audio transcript, I was struck by how different Davidson was from the captain I sailed with. The captain I sailed with on the roll on/roll off vessel on the Atlantic ocean was a “hawsepiper” (maritime slang for an officer who began his career as an unlicensed seaman and came up through the ranks — “up the hawse pipe” — instead of attending a maritime academy.) He was humble and had good common sense seamanship. Keeping in mind the age and structural issues of our vessel, he gave wide berth to weather much less severe than a hurricane. If he caught any flak from the company, he never let on. My conviction was that he had the guts and spine to stand up against worldly pressures and concerns to make a moral choice — no unnecessary risk to life is worth a job, any job, no matter how coveted, or meeting a schedule, no matter how pressing. While no one really knows what was going on in the mind of Davidson, he clearly lacked the type of decisiveness I described.

His dubious behavior and failure of leadership were able to take root in the soil of poor management and nebulous accountability in the shipping company. TOTE, at the time of the disaster, had experienced corporate downsizing and management shuffling. In the investigation, it was unclear who was responsible for what or who was accountable to whom. TOTE, by all appearances, had become removed from the reality of life at sea. Deadly for a shipping company.

After completing the investigation in December 2017, the NTSB outlined ten preliminary safety recommendations and 53 additional recommendations and regulatory initiatives in their Marine Accident Report. The Coast Guard, in a separate investigation report, gave 31 safety recommendations and 4 administrative recommendations. Some of the recommendations became new regulations in the Maritime Safety Act of 2018.

On the four year anniversary of El Faro’s sinking, I remember the thirty-three people who died senselessly. I’m also very mindful and aware that I’m alive today because the captain I sailed with was, at his core, different than Captain Davidson.

Given my experience, my belief is that people tend to underestimate the importance of sound leadership and management and overemphasize the need for regulation to prevent such tragedy.

Transcript of El Faro Voyage Data Recorder

El Faro Marine Board of Investigation transcripts

Full NTSB Marine Accident Report on El Faro sinking

U.S. Coast Guard Report

(posted 10/1/2019)