Maritime safety show downs are few and far between and they don’t get much more dramatic than this.
Says Tom Roth-Roffy, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board panel investigating the loss of the ship El Faro, to Peter Keller, executive vice president of Tote, the parent company of firms that owned the El Faro.
“Few would dispute the loss of the ship El Faro and its cargo — and most importantly the loss of 33 souls aboard the El Faro — represents a colossal failure in management of the companies responsible for the safe operation of the El Faro,” Roth-Roffy said.
Roth-Roffy then turned to Keller and said:
“Could you share with this board your thoughts of the management failures that led to the loss of the El Faro?”
“I think this tragic loss is all about an accident and I look to this board as well as the NTSB to try to define what those elements may or may not have been. I for one, with 51 years of experience in transportation, cannot come up with a rational answer.”
(Roth-Roffy later apologized for the way his question was phrased, but my own view is it was useful and to the point.)
So what’s to be said of that, given four full working weeks of testimony before a joint NTSB and US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation?
It’s fair to say that the investigation has not found a “smoking gun” that would link Tote to a specific cover up of a “causal event” in the El Faro case.
But the hearings have uncovered the scars of a thousand cuts of neglect — by the company and inspectors and policy makers — that combined may have killed the El Faro as surely as an aimed and intended pistol shot.
Context of course is everything. If Keller cannot imagine what went wrong with the El Faro, many others in the industry can. The El Faro plain and simply faced a lot of risk before she even left the dock.
Accidents happen. Storms overwhelm the best of ships.
The El Faro was not the best of ships. She was 40 years old — about twice the age at which most vessels are retired. Such ships can be run. But only very carefully.
What caused the disaster?
In the path of the hurricane, the El Faro lost her engine at sea.
She was steaming at 20 knots to escape the hurricane when the plant went out. This means she had no chance to outrun Hurricane Joaquin and could not in fact steer to meet the waves wrought by Joaquin.
Was the loss of the engine an “accident?”
Not likely. Most probably, it was a malfunction.
Steam plants fail. And that is a consequence of how the steam plant was built, operated and maintained. There’s nothing much more scientific than a steam plant. They’ve been used since 1788.
How exactly it malfunctioned, we do not know, though there are some clues in reports of corroded boilers.
But there is a big difference between “accident” and “malfunction.”
Important as it is, propulsion is not the top safety priority. That would be hull integrity.
A ship’s first job is to float.
And somehow, we know, the integrity of the hull failed in some manner as well. It’s not certain where and how this failure occurred, but the captain radioed that the ship was “in full communication with the sea.” In other words, the sea was washing in and out of the ship freely.
How does that happen by accident? How does a seaworthy ship allow in such quantities of sea?
The logical reply is not “accident.” Particularly if you’ve already used that answer for the steam engine failure. The logical, reasonable reply is “malfunction.”
But let’s give credence to the “accidents” theory for a moment. Let’s move on.
Even if the two major elements of seaworthiness — hull integrity and propulsion — accidentally fail, you still have fall-backs. Systems back up systems at sea after all.
As the ship began to founder, Captain Michael Davidson sought out those backups. He called the company’s emergency hotline.
The call went to voice mail. When the call went through, the shore-side officer had no real feeling for the location of the ship or the hurricane.
At this precise point, expert testimony says, the crew might have had a chance at survival if they ran to “Captain Phillips” enclosed capsule type lifeboats that they could board on-ship and launch neatly into high winds and waves.
Only they did not have those lifeboats.
The El Faro, like a lot of old ships in the “Jones Act” fleet, was grandfathered with old open boats. Even had Davidson ordered abandon ship, the crew had little chance launching the boats. The El Faro was listing by 15 degrees at that time. The old fashioned boats need to be lowered into the water.
This most assuredly was not an “accident.”
It was a policy decision by the company and safety regulators to allow old-fashioned Lusitania era lifeboats.
This was a sifting and shifting of risk. The company could not risk the investment in new lifeboat systems. So it shifted that risk to the crew members who could not risk being out of work. Everyone agreed the old lifeboats were good enough. Until they were not.
Tote may actually be winning the legal battle during the hearings. But its senior officer’s reply that he “cannot think of a rational answer” as to why the ship sank does the company and industry no favors.
The “rational answer” as to why the ship sank is not some will o’ the wisp ghost one cannot seize. It’s built of bricks of risk factors with odds cementing them.
An old ship was kept at sea for twice its lifespan and sent into a hurricane with inadequate weather information, inadequate shore support, inadequate lifeboats, inadequate inspections and boilers that were seriously corroded.
The ship had big odds stacked against it. This is pure modern-day risk management assessment. Quantify those risk factors above and run them through a computer.
Then add 100 mile per hour winds and fifty foot waves. You’ll have a ton of simulated sinkings. More than for a ten-year-old ship with modern systems. That’s just fact.
Could there have been some unexplained accident that occurred that breached the hull, killed the engine and sank the ship?
It’s not impossible. But it’s also not reasonable.
Perhaps the “black box” will tell us one day, if it is recovered from the sea bottom.
The question that Tote, the NTSB and the Coast Guard must now answer is:
What rational executive or regulator allows such a chain of risk factors to exist? Faced with the reality of it, does one take some responsibility?
Or claim it’s all an accident?
I saw that happen years ago at the Coast Guard hearings into the sinking of the SS Poet — an old World War II rust bucket that sailed out of Philadelphia never to be seen again. Nothing was done. No reforms were made. Every assertion that the ship was inherently unsafe was rejected by the investigators.
And three year’s later the old ship the SS Marine Electric sailed to a watery grave off the coast of Virginia.
Let’s hope the El Faro is not a replay of the Poet.
For an act of God may have finished off the El Faro.
But it was an act of man that kept her at sea.
And then, with her ancient joints and power plant, sent her out to play tag with a hurricane.