60 Minutes Misses the Boat on El Faro and the Scandal of the Jones Act Rust Bucket Fleet

Posted: March 6, 2017 in Contemporary Commentary

Scott Pelley, CBS News Anchor and 60 Minutes correspondent, is famously ripped. We know this from his muscle man shot appearance pumping iron with Hugh Jackman back in 2012.

Big biceps have done little for his journalistic weight class and his most recent venture makes one wonder whether he and his executive producers combined could move from the floor the brief cases that Morley Safer or Mike Wallace carried so ably into their 80’s.

This was seen most recently when 60 Minutes sought to do an investigative inquiry into the wreck of the SS El Faro, an American ship that was lost on October 1, 2015 in Hurricane Joaquin.

el faro
What they came up with instead was a light weight feature story with easy answers and an easy villain.

Had 60 Minutes spent sixty seconds reading online clips from the Jacksonville papers or the maritime press, they might have produced a meaningful investigative story — one that deals with a major American policy called the Jones Act, an ancient piece of legislation that keeps a rust bucket fleet of American ships at sea.

Or perhaps they knew all that — but just went for easy.

Pelley led the reporting on the story — and with a “hem” here and a “haw” there pretty much concluded that the late Captain Michael Davidson led the crew and officers to their death by charting the wrong course straight into Hurricane Joaquin.

The killer line — the cusp of the story — came when Pelley asked the NTSB investigator about Davidson leaving the bridge and going to the cabin.

“How unusual, in your experience, (is it) for a captain to be eight hours in his cabin going into a storm like this?” Pelley asked ominously.

The NTSB officials — on camera at least — did little to head off negative conclusions.

“It’s a difficult question to answer,” was the tentative reply. “This captain on this accident was convinced that they were on the better side of the storm already and that they were gonna beat the storm. But he was using the information he had, which was outdated, to make these decisions.”

But of course it’s the sound bite question that is the killer.  There is no soundbite answer to that question — so the issue raised by the soundbite question rules the rest of the story.

Actually, Davidson had some decent enough reasons to retire to his cabin and be confident that a sound and seaworthy ship could weather this storm. Key words — sound and seaworthy ship — that get no dramatic sound bite questions from Pelley.

It is hard to understand why not. The NTSB and Coast Guard hearings certainly have served up those questions and sketched out a voyage that cannot be explained in such simple terms as “captain error.” There is a heavy weight of evidence that suggests that the culture and company bore a great burden in this tragedy — evidence that Pelley and 60 Minutes simply ignore.

And there is clear evidence over the years that US maritime policy and the Jones Act play a heavy role and bear some responsibility for the tragedy.  There is convincing evidence that the El Faro was unseaworthy when she sailed.

Here’s a soundbite question Pelley did not choose to ask anyone:  Why did Davidson sail for a company, Tote Maritime, that kept a ship in service near twice the age at which most vessels are scrapped?scott pelley

Tote did this as a matter-of-fact affair because that is how the American Merchant Marine works under “the Jones Act.”  Tote is no better nor worse than other American ship lines in this matter and government policy actually encourages these unsafe and bad economic  practices. A good one-third of the American merchant marine fleet is composed of “over-age” ships.

And the Jones Act is a major policy issue in America — one raised frequently not by liberal progressive types like me but Ayn Rand Cato Institute think-tankers.  It’s real and obvious and –lord  save my liberal soul — legitimate.  You don’t have to scrap the Jones Act — just the unsafe ships that sail in its fleet.

The Jones Act requires all American-to-American port shipping be done with US crews and US ships.  The problem is:  American shipping companies can’t afford new ships.  So they keep very old ships in service and try to keep them patched up.

They can’t.  What they have is the equivalent of you driving a 1976 Oldsmobile with 300,000 miles on it — and swearing to God to your spouse and kids that it’s safe to drive to Chicago through a blizzard, don’t worry. It’s fine. Just fine.

That’s a great Chevy Chase “Vacation” movie, but the problem of course is that it’s not fine.  You can only fix what you see is wrong.  Gaskets, seals, rusted brackets not in plain view — all of these can give way even under close inspection.

And even if it is tip-top, your ’76 Olds does not have the safety features of a 2017 car — no airbags, disc brakes, collapsible crash-friendly frames.

And so it is with ships.

Three times the company asked to modify the ship to add containers up top — and three times the Coast Guard required that the ship be considered for major inspection and possible modernization first.    This might have included major inspections and repairs — and new automatically launching “Captain Phillips” type lifeboats.

The fourth time, the Coast Guard caved and let the company refit the ship — without a major inspection and without those new lifeboats. The refitting lowered the ship two feet when fully loaded — and at least one captain said the added containers on top made the ship lean even in still weather.

What shape was she in when she sailed?

Her sister ship provides a pretty good proxy.  The vents in the ship — pretty much identical in design, construction and length of service to the El Faro — were no longer water tight.  If the ship listed, these vents could scoop in water and send it into the holds. And thanks to the refitting, they now were two feet closer to the water line when the ship was loaded.

The  Coast Guard found so much wrong with the sister ship, that the company scrapped her, rather than make repairs, this past December.

And a special study of the El Faro, commissioned by the US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation, found that the El Faro would not pass many modern day stability tests if she were built to the same spec in 2017.

So what was Davidson to do in September 2015?

He had the reputation as a very cautious captain.  He would not let pilots — the guides to navigating hazardous inner waterways — take elevators to the bridge in case the power tripped off and stranded them when most needed.

And at one point, a few years ago, working with Crowley Maritime, he ordered two tug boats to escort his ship because he feared the vessel’s steering was off.  He told his wife he was fired by Crowley for that (Crowley says he resigned) and he had to start over at a new company as third mate.

As he set out to sea on the El Faro, he was uncertain of his future with the company.  He had been considered for new ships being built by Tote — but he’d also been turned down once, then interviewed again.  The word aboard the ship is that another officer — not on the last voyage of the El Faro — had backstabbed him with HR, claiming falsely that he was a “state room captain.”  True or not, the mood in the company and onboard the ship was clearly contentious with officers and crew uncertain of their future.

The culture seemed to some more “make no wrong move” than “make sure safety is first.” Everyone wanted a job on the new ships.  No one wanted to make waves.  Everyone knew what a rust bucket the El Faro was.  They scraped her decks and carted off the rust, one seaman testified.

Certainly, this was not a company where questioning captains seemed welcome, according to some testimony.  A short time earlier a Tote master — one who had been honored by the company for his service on board the El Faro carrying military equipment to the Iraq war — was dismissed.  Supposedly, he was let go after two seamen were busted on drug smuggling charges — charges that involved no other crew members or officers.  The captain — who is roundly considered a professional and straight shooter on maritime discussion boards — testified he felt he was fired because he had complained that Tote was not making timely repairs to serious flaws in the ship the captain had pointed out. (An arbitration panel cleared him of any wrong doing or fault.)

Given that, did Davidson have a choice in sailing that day if he wanted to keep his job?

Certainly, he did not have a real option to stay in port.  Generally, that’s not the right choice if a storm is coming — and if you do, special rules apply.  You need to hire tugs, for one thing, and Davidson knew how tug expense vouchers affected your career.

The route Davidson tracked was close to the hurricane but no track was safe in a storm that was perilous and unpredictable.  Was he to go north from Jacksonville? That’s where Joaquin was said to be heading.

Should he have ducked into the Old Bahama Passage?  Easier said than done:  barrier islands protect against waves, but not winds, and the Passage poses other threats of being run aground by high winds in narrow straits.

The ship and the captain were both veterans of Alaskan waters and treacherous seas.  The chief mate was a master in his own right — and agreed the course was good.  While it seems clear in retrospect that he might have picked an easier route, Davidson had every expectation of the ship remaining seaworthy.

And if the El Faro was overall a tentative affair, she had one thing going for her: speed.  She was fast. God she was fast. She was built to move at military speeds north of 20 knots  and Davidson asked for and got 20 knots from her — enough to beat the storm moving at six miles per hour and plow through Joaquin.  Thirty foot waves are big waves — they aren’t killer waves in Alaska or the Atlantic, if your ship is sound.

The El Faro was not. Downplayed by Pelley is that simple, basic fact. The ship was not seaworthy. Boats must float. That is a basic responsibility of the owner.  Davidson did not wreck her.  He did not run her aground, into an island or another ship.  The El Faro stopped floating.

She took on water — and the transcripts of the ship show the officers could never quite account for the large amounts of water that came in. The flooding was consistent with a large rupture in the hull — perhaps the vents that were so corroded and porous on the sister ship, the vents that were two feet closer to the water, thanks to the Coast Guard approved refitting.

Once she developed a list, the oil levels in the old steam plant shifted and killed the engine — a 40-year-old steam engine not present on any modern day ship.

From that point, the ship was lost but not necessarily the crew.  The vessel carried lifeboats after all, and any one who saw Captain Phillips knows how easy modern lifeboats are to use.

Only they did not have those modern lifeboats — required since the mid-1980’s.   They had gravity drop Lusitania – like lifeboats because they were not required to modernize the ship when they added the containers.  Gravity drop lifeboats don’t work when the ship is listing.

And so, the crew had only a slim chance at a survival suit escape. Or launching life rafts. One maritimer said the pictures of the El Faro seemed to show a desperate attempt to launch life rafts from lines tied to the railings.  None made it.

Was it Davidson’s fault?  It’s easy for Pelley and others to conclude that — or roundly imply it.  It makes for a good drama. It’s a short punchy feature story. What was this guy thinking?  Why did he go to bed and report that — as Pelley plucked from a 500-page manuscript — that he “slept like a baby”?

And yes, there is a point there.  But it’s unfair out of context.   Davidson, faced with several bad options, may have succumbed to honest mistakes in a very bad system that was bound to produce this sort of outcome someday for someone.

What his options were, I’m not sure.  A mariner I greatly respect said, “If you get gored by a bull, you ought not be complaining that I told you the bull was going left and the bull went right.  The question is: ‘Why were you in the ring?'”

It’s a nice metaphor. But the answer is easy:  Masters don’t get paid to stay out of the ring.  They get paid to assess and manage risk.

And in the American merchant marine, with its old ships and rust bucket culture, the risk is far greater than it seems.  It is systematically and institutionally ignored for one good reason.  Upton Sinclair pointed it out decades ago:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

And so it is with our merchant marine, the Jones Act and the rust bucket fleet.  It is difficult for a system to understand it is fundamentally flawed, when its existence depends on ignoring that flaw.

Many of these old ships are unsafe, far past their prime.  Yet the companies keep them and officers and crew sail them because they have no other choice if they want to keep working.

So it was in 1983 when the SS Marine Electric sank — and three men survived to testify about the unseaworthy old rust bucket. The resulting scandal reformed maritime safety for a few decades.

And 60 Minutes might have done that again with the El Faro.

Either Wallace and Safer would have seen the real story here and dead lifted this one with one big easy move.    They knew the leverage points of news. And they knew instinctively to heft the larger story with large policy implications.

Pelley, alas, is content to do feature stories.

The network news is not the enemy of the people, as some say.

It’s just hanging with Wolverine in the gym.

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