MIAMI, Florida–The sinking of the United States cargo ship El Faro, resulting in the loss of 33 mariners when the ship ran directly into the Category 3 Hurricane Joaquin, has been under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The cargo ship sank during a cargo run between Jacksonville, Florida and Puerto Rico. The voyage data recorder, similar to the black box aboard an airplane, was recovered. The ship’s data recorder, which recorded audio of the ship’s last 26 hours from microphones placed on the bridge, revealed conversations between the captain and the shoreside personnel, as well as conversations and comments from crew.
There still is no final conclusion reached by the NTSB as to the cause of this sinking, but the recent 510-page transcript reveal more about why this boating tragedy happened. Hurricane Joaquin clearly strengthened unexpectedly, and did end up taking a different track than anticipated. The captain apparently relied on conflicting forecasts to maintain his track during the voyage, not taking an alternative route. However, the investigation has revealed that weather conditions clearly deteriorated, and updated weather forecasts should have alerted the company and the captain that a change in the intended route of the vessel was required.
The audio recordings reflect that the captain considered changing course, but for some unexplained reason did not make the adjustments that were discussed. The recordings reflect the crew members questioning the captain’s decision not to change course, and as the conditions deteriorated and it became more evident that the captain was taking the vessel into dangerous waters and conditions, the recordings reflect the crew members’ voices becoming firmer and stronger.
Why was the captain not changing course? There are questions whether the vessel was receiving the latest weather reports, and whether the captain was relying on equipment on board the vessel as to the voyage route that misguided him, despite his awareness of warnings from not only the crew, but from other vessels. Why was the captain so determined to maintain his route, which provided for a reasonably certain death of the crew, including himself? The recordings have brought to light the fact that changes were discussed, crew members had insisted that the captain change course, and that the captain ignored these pleas.
Further investigation is obviously necessary to determine why the captain did not change course and why the company did not require a change in the course of the vessel. Although the storm intensified beyond its expectations and changed its track rapidly, there was plenty of time for actions to be taken on the part of the captain to avoid this tragedy.
One comment picked up on the recordings was the extra cost of fuel by making a change in the projected itinerary. I have seen this as being a factor in deciding whether to change a track of the vessel. A captain is often under pressure to reduce fuel costs and many times decisions are made in order to save fuel. Many times a captain receives a bonus, and how long it takes for particular voyages, as well as how well the captain did in maintaining the budget, plays a factor in the bonus.
It appears that the captain believed he could outmaneuver this storm. We have handled several crew member and seamen claims involving reckless decisions by captains and companies to continue on a voyage despite weather forecasts. It is hard to imagine how this can occur in the modern day with all the technology, and communication systems on board vessels and on shore. We have to wonder whether profit motives are behind these reckless decisions.
We will continue to post updates as the NTSB continues to release information including their conclusions as to the cause of these wrongful deaths.