60 Minutes Gets El Faro One Third Right

Posted: March 5, 2017 in Contemporary Commentary

“60 Minutes” revisited the wreck of the SS El Faro tonight with an update of the maritime disaster.  That’s the good news.  A major news show on a major network is covering maritime safety.

Here’s the bad news: It got about one third of the story.  It missed the other two thirds because it really hasn’t been covering the investigation into the El Faro, just the sexier parts that involve deep underwater searches and Titanic-like underwater footage.

So the viewers of tonight’s 60 Minute episode are left with one conclusion:  Captain Michael Davidson, the master of the El Faro, messed up, steered too close to Hurricane Joaquin and went to bed too soon. The other officers tried to get him to change course but he would not.

That could be a valid reading of the transcript of the last hours of the El Faro.  I’ve heard knowledgeable maritime experts come to that conclusion.

I can’t with certainty because there are other readings of the tragedy  in a fuller context that place the disaster and Davidson in a different context.  Not mentioned by 60 Minutes — or the NTSB investigator who appeared on screen — is the fact that Davidson had a reputation as an extremely conservative and cautious captain who:

— Got fired by one company for hiring on tugboats to help steer one iffy-ship

— Feared he would be let go by the owner of the El Faro

Not mentioned is the fact that another master felt he was fired by the company because he reported safety violations.

Also missing from the 60 Minute report?  A major and obvious fact: This ship was forty years old — about twice the age at which most ships are scrapped.  Its sister ship was scrapped recently because ventilation shafts were so ruined they were no longer air tight.

Add to that the fact that the company that ran the El Faro also was convicted of the felony of price fixing — one of the worst anti-trust cases in US history — and you might wonder about the company’s character references.

Irritating too was this quote from the NTSB investigator:

“This accident was unique in the fact that we didn’t have any survivors to interview that would enlighten us to the events and the situation that took place aboard the vessel as they approached the storm.”

Alas, not the case. The SS Poet.  The SS Marine Sulphur Queen.  All very old ships that sank with no survivors.  Check out the world shipping lanes.  A big one goes down once per month, often with no survivors.

I suppose I should say hats off to 60 Minutes for covering this.  And hats off to the NTSB for pursuing an investigation that recovered the “black box” recordings of the last words of the crew and officers.

So: hats off.  That’s all good.

But the shame here is that both seem to buy into what I call the “bang and hang” tradition of government maritime investigations.  They bang the captains then hang them.

Read the old NTSB and US Coast Guard Marine Boards of Investigation and you see an number of “human error” conclusions.  Probe those just a little bit more deeply and you see a pattern of very old ships sent out to sea decades after they ought to have been scrapped.

It’s a shame to see neither 60 Minutes nor the NTSB investigator raise an issue about the safety of a 40 year old ship and place the weight and responsibility on a man who cannot answer his critics.  It’s a shame to see one third of the issues presented and all the other arguments that exculpate Davidson ignored.





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