“The Clock Is Ticking”: Inside the Worst U.S. Maritime Disaster in Decades

It has been reported that a major merchant ship goes down somewhere in the world every two or three days; most are ships sailing under flags of convenience, with underpaid crews and poor safety records.

…Captain Lawrence? Captain Davidson. Thursday morning, 0700. We have a navigational incident. I’ll keep it short. A scuttle popped open on two-deck and we were having some free communication of water go down the three-hold. Have a pretty good list. I want to just touch—contact you verbally here. Everybody’s safe, but I want to talk to you.

…“I have a marine emergency and I would like to speak to a Q.I.[Qualified Individual] We had a hull breach—a scuttle blew open during a storm. We have water down in three-hold with a heavy list. We’ve lost the main propulsion unit. The engineers cannot get it going. Can I speak to a Q.I., please?”

…[Ship’s Captain Davidson] did not know the wind speeds because the ship’s anemometer was in disrepair and had been for weeks; it is now believed that the winds were sustained at 115 m.p.h., with higher gusts. As for the waves, Davidson appears to have underreported them, perhaps as a matter of professional style. El Faro was in fact struggling to endure steep breaking waves 30 to 40 feet high, and was occasionally encountering waves still higher. These monsters were smashing over the ship, knocking containers overboard, and boiling across a lower second deck that by design was watertight below but open to the sea. That second deck was the location of the scuttle that had been opened. Three-hold was a cavernous two-deck space below it, just aft of midship.

Lawrence asked for a measure of the list. Davidson said, “Betcha it’s all of 15—15 degrees.” Fifteen degrees is steep.

…The ship was found resting upright on a sandy plain 15,400 feet beneath the surface, and the recorder—a circuit board barely 2.5 inches long—was eventually retrieved. It contained the final 26 hours of conversations among nine doomed people on the bridge. The audio quality was poor, but a technical team was able to extract most of the spoken words and produce a 496-page transcript, by far the longest in the N.T.S.B.’s history. The transcript is a remarkable document—an unadorned record of nothing more than the sounds on the bridge. The people involved are identified in the transcript only by their shipboard ranks, but the names of the officers are part of the public record, and in the time since the tragedy other names have been revealed. It is now possible to know with reasonable certainty what occurred.

…[Captain Davidson] was a by-the-book mariner with a reputation for being unusually competent and organized. By training and temperament he was a safety-first man.

…At the time, TOTE was busy blaming Davidson by insisting that all routing and weather decisions were his alone to make, but here Davidson appeared to be asking permission for the Old Bahama Channel run. To make matters worse, it was answered by one of the cc’d managers, the director of ship management, Jim Fisker-Andersen, who was in San Francisco at the time. Fisker-Andersen wrote, “Captain Mike, diversion request heads up through Old Bahama Channel understood and authorized. Thank you for the heads up. Kind regards.”

…As is usually the case, the catastrophe was unfolding because of a combination of factors that had aligned, which included: Davidson’s caution with the home office; his decision to take a straight-line course; the subtle pressures to stick to the schedule; the systematic failure of the forecasts; the persuasiveness of the B.V.S. graphics; the lack of a functioning anemometer; the failure by some to challenge Davidson’s thinking more vigorously; the initial attribution of the ship’s list entirely to the winds; and finally a certain mental inertia that had overcome all of them. This is the stuff of tragedy that can never be completely explained.

“The Clock Is Ticking”: Inside the Worst U.S. Maritime Disaster in Decades | Vanity Fair



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